In our continued effort to diversify our content, Terminal Laughter brings you a new weekly column, Great Laughs. Proceeding from the suggestion that nowadays it’s the stuff of pop culture (and the funny stuff especially) that binds us together, we’ll explore some piece of pop ephemera that packs repeat laughs. It could be a movie, a Simpsons episode, a comedy sketch, a stand-up bit, whatever. So remember: every Thursday (more-or-less), you’ll get a new Great Laughs column. And feel free to suggest your own, as the pickings will inevitably dwindle as weeks pass. That said, let’s wet our beaks with the contemporary benchmark for cult classic comedy and reliable cure for the Mondays…
OFFICE SPACE (Dir. Mike Judge, 1999)
By: John Semley
One day in my grade ten English class, we were parsing the concepts of utopia and dystopia (of course). We were asked to haul off a bunch of books and movies that deal with the concept of dystopia. Between all the mentions of 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Logan’s Run and other yardsticks for world-gone-wrong film and literature, one student offered up Office Space. Now usually you only expect grade ten English students to offer up insights as pointed as “like yeah because he says that they are all phonies but it is in fact him who is a phony too!” But a fifteen year old with white collar anxiety? It was downright prescient.
For the benefit of the uninitiated, Office Space is perhaps the most perceptive comedy since Slap Shot in terms of examining issues of collar-colour. Ron Livingston plays Peter Gibbons, a disaffected computer programmer who slaves away in a cubicle updating bank software for the Y2K switch. The company, Initech, is plagued by excessive management, with numerous supervisors casually popping by Peter’s desk to casually condescend him about one or another bureaucratic misstep (most famously his forgetting to attach new cover sheets to his TPS reports). After a trip to an occupational hypnotherapist, who leaves Peter in a permanent state of Jimmy Buffetesque nonchalance, his dispassion soothes into laid-back indifference. Peter starts strolling into work late (if at all), and trades in the yoke of white collar and tie for the casual elegance of blue jeans and a t-shirt. Before long, Peter and a couple of a cubicle-dwelling cronies are working on a plan to rip-off Initech with a complex computer virus.
A pretty solid fan trailer for Office Space that uses that MIA “Paper Planes” song just about as well as any trailer does nowadays.
As a comedy, Office Space is a weird movie. Hell, as a movie, Office Space is a weird movie. To begin, it contentedly stews around in a whitewashed clerical hell that always reads as oppressive. This isn’t to say that it’s as hyperbolically severe as, say, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, but rather that it is precisely its refusal to indulge easy Orwellian fantasy that makes it so chilling. Take Initech’s division Vice President, Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole). The professional-managerial everyboss, Lumbergh isn’t so much Gordon Gecko as the type of Master’s in Management prick who self-consciously styles himself after Michael Douglas’s personification of corporatized slickness. He may not have a mansion on the water, but he’s got the commercially slicked back hair, the superfluous belt and suspenders system of pants restraint, the private space for his Porsche 911 (bearing the vanity plate “MY PRSHE”), and worst of all, he’s so average that there’s always the distinct possibility that he may have fucked your girlfriend.
Looking back on this film’s posture towards the politics of micromanagement from our present vantage makes it seem all the more prophetic. As Lumbergh outsources downsizing to external consultants Bob Slydell (John C. McGinley) and Bob Porter (Bob Willson), a pair whose own redundancy is indicated by name alone, we begin to see that the problems of corporate infrastructure fall less on the heads of an unmotivated labour force than their obtuse executive overlords. In this regard, the film functions as middle-class revenge fantasy against the needlessly baffling operations of managerial labour and the sort of professional alienation it engenders, much like P.T. Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love or Gore Verbinski’s The Weather Man. The most pronounced difference, of course, is that Judge is playing the whole things for laughs.
But Office Space is fairly sly for a comedy. Apart from a few standout scenes—the outdoor smashing of the fax/printer set to a Geto Boys song—Office Space is exceptional in its ability to harmonize its narrative with its comedy. Coming off the heels of all the hot comedies of the 1990s (Billy Madison, Tommy Boy, Dumb and Dumber) that had lulled audiences into thinking that film comedy was little more than a series of gross-out gags sutured together by a plot that rarely exceeds its own premise, Office Space offered something different. Correctly assuming that the phrase “Taco Shooters or Extreme Fajitas” is funnier than even the fattest guy in the li’lest coat, Judge largely forgoes scattered knee-slaps and cola-through-nose belly laughs for a consistent smirk of identification with Livingston’s Peter and his equally sympathetic co-workers, Samir Nagheenanajar (Ajay Naidu) and the unfortunately named Michael Bolton (David Herman).
It’s sharing in their frustrations that makes Office Space work, giving life not only to the characters, but the fundamental absurdity of their working conditions. It’s the way people react to photocopier jams, answer phones in a joylessly merry monotone and “M’yeah” their way through the working week that makes Judge’s film not only hilarious, but deeply resonant in a way that anticipates the grisly workplace doldrums of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s The Office and its more hijinks-happy American counterpart. And of course, it’s not all dark humour and portraits of middle-class disaffection. Drawing from his experience in animated comedy, Judge tosses in enough cartoonishly exaggerative characters—Richard Riehle as Tom Smykowski, a largely useless Initech employee with a long-laboured get rich quick fantasy and Stephen Root as the squirrelly Milton Waddams (the character responsible for making the sheepish “I believe you have my stapler” into the certified meme it is today) come immediately to mind—serve as the necessary escape hatches that film like this needs, lest it become, well, the British version of The Office.
Riehle’s Tom Smykowski explains his “Jump to Conclusions” mat.
Sure the film’s not perfect, and its too-happy ending comes largely undeserved, but considering the rigmarole Judge has had to suffer producing live action features (see: 2006’s Idiocracy, which more pronouncedly addresses issues of American dystopia), this is forgivable. With great performances by Livingston, who apart from the few good lines he has in Adaptation has been seriously underused as a comedic actor, Cole and the hit-or-miss (but mostly miss) Diedrich Bader as Peter’s blue collar neighbour (a character who Judge, playing as ever against the grain, uses to establish parity between manual and technical labour) an fair on-point soundtrack of ‘90s hip-hop and enough well-layered jokes to reward repeat viewings, Office Space is well deserving of its slow and steady descent to cult status. And Jennifer Aniston is not insufferable in it. Bonus. So if you’re ever in a pinch for a taught 90 minutes of American comedy, well, for my money, they don’t get much better than this one.