Thursday, December 3, 2009
Certain movies get funnier as we get older. As carefree children the cynicism and satire is pretty much completely lost on us. We may think we like a movie as a kid only to find out years later that we didn't really get it the first time around.
Office Space is one of those movies. Released in 1999, its theatrical release fell just short of a complete financial flop just barely breaking even on production costs. Despite the near-abysmal ticket sales, a few years later Comedy Central took on the Office Space cause and proceeded to play the movie ad infinitum. Between 2001 and 2003, you had something like a one in ten chance of flipping your television to Comedy Central and seeing Office Space. For a movie that bombed in the theaters, those odds were looking pretty good for viewership.
As a teenager I recall thinking the movie was kind of funny, but I couldn't quite pinpoint why. I'm pretty sure I just like all the flair Jennifer Anniston had to wear for her job at Tchotchkie's restaurant. I probably saw the movie 20 times during high school, though, and I consistently believed I enjoyed these viewings.
I grew up, as people tend to do, and got my first office job. I saw the movie again. I was shocked to find that it was brilliant. Not just the flair this time around, either. This movie was genius. How had I missed it?
In the years between, the movie gained something of a cult following. Office drones everywhere gather to bow down at the Office Space altar, delighting in its depiction in all that is horrific and mundane about cubical monkeyhood. The satire is spot-on, which is pretty impressive coming from the guy behind Beavis and Butthead. Mike Judge took a critical eye to the sterile corporate life so many of us are entwined in and let us live vicariously through the reckless and satisfyingly vengeful actions of our protagonists. In this movie, the good guys were the bad guys. Sure, they were stealing money and destroying the company computer system, but how many times can a person be asked about a memo? It's pretty inevitable that he's just going to snap one day.
Our hero Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) is an office drone with great aspirations: to do nothing. Anyone who's ever slaved away at their desk knows that no matter how ambitious you once were, it's impossible to stare at your computer eight hours a day without this thought filtering through your brain. At that point, nothing seems like the ultimate something, and something you may never be rich enough to achieve. Depressing, right? It's almost as bad as coming down with a case of the Mondays.
Unsurprisingly, Gibbons is not much of a go-getter. His only real motivation to do any work at all seems to lie in his desire not to be fired, but he spends most of his time staring at his desk. As a kid, I thought, "Well, isn't that nothing?" but as an adult, I realize that it is indeed something. Something that makes you a slave to the system rather than an agent of your own free will.
It's 1999, and Gibbon's task at work is to reprogram computers for the allegedly impending Y2K computer crisis. His job at Initech is further compounded by the ever-irritating vice president Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole), who constantly suggests he just go ahead and get on with those TPS reports. He's not a particularly good listener, completely tuning out Peter when he explains that yes, he did get the memo.
Initech brings in a pair of so-called "efficiency experts", the Bobs, to bring costs down. This is a benign way of saying they're going to can as many people as they want, and Peter and his coworkers aren't exactly thrilled by their doom-impending presence. By this point, Peter is just going through the motions of his life. His relationship is souring, he hates his job, and he's generally unhappy. I know, I know, this is a comedy? Don't worry, eventually we get to the part where they bust out with "Damn it Feels Good to be a Gangsta". But not quite yet, so hang in there.
The cast of characters is pretty ripe for the downsize picking, featuring cartoonish over the top caricatures of coworkers. There's Milton, originally of the Saturday Night Live sketch on which the film was based, who's forever blathering about his red stapler and talking to himself in a generally irritating manner. There's the super multi-syllabic Indian tech worker Samir Nagheennanajar. In case you were wondering, that's pronounced just like it's spelled. We also have Michael Bolton, a pencil pusher with the unfortunate luck to share a moniker with the easy-listening pop star. It's certainly a motley crew here at Initech.
Peter's girlfriend makes him visit a hypnotherapist in an effort to get him to relax. The therapist suffers a fatal heart attack while in the midst of hypnotizing Peter to the point of total relaxation, leaving Peter with a permanent glaze of a relaxed attitude. Seeking to follow his dream to do nothing, he simply decides that he will from then on ignore his unfaithful girlfriend, ignores Lumbergh's long-winded pleas for weekend overtime, and generally takes a lax attitude to work. He also entertains the possibility of a romance with Joanna (Jennifer Aniston) based on his impressions of her from his Tchotchke's dining experience. That place is like the bastard love child of TGIFridays and Chili's, but with far better regulated uniform flair.
Alright, you've been patient. You've waited long enough. You ready for it? Here's Michael in the "Damn it Feels Good to Be a Gangsta" montage. Oh, and you know, warning for coarse language and all that.
The Bobs, with their twisted logic, recognize Peter's newfound laziness as the free-thinking spirit characteristic of management and in their finite wisdom grant him a promotion. Meanwhile, his more hardworking pals Michael Bolton and Samir are given the axe.
Samir, Michael, and Peter hatch a crazy revenge plot against Initech. They plan to infect the computers with a vicious virus that will glean tiny amounts of money into a separate personal bank account. It's revenge of the nerds, tech industry style. They also enact a smaller, more personal revenge on one of their office nemeses: the temperamental printer that tortured them with phantom paper jam messages. This scene has since become an iconic bit of Office Space nostalgia, with many making their own parodies.
There's a glitch in their plan and they accidentally end up stealing way more money way faster than planned, a blip sure to register on Initech's management radar. Peter begins to feel guilty, particularly after some goading from the flairful Joanna. He returns the money to the office in travelers checks, complete with a signed letter accepting the blame. He's ready to accept the consequences and face the strong arm of the law when things take a turn.
Turns out bumbling coworker Milton made good on his repeated grumblings to burn the place down, and Peter and friends watch on as Initech goes up in flames.
In the end, everyone gets a little bit of what they want. Peter finds a construction job more suited to his lifestyle, Samir and Michael find jobs at a rival tech company, and Milton whoops it up across the border using the travelers' checks left by Peter. All in all, not a bad deal.
The movie isn't meant to be a real, it's meant to be a fantasy. While the depiction of office life is at times uncanny, the revenge storyline is a manifestation of what all of us office drone dream of on our worst job-hating days. We may not be able to take the Xerox machine out back for a little go 'round with the ol' baseball bat, but at least we can pop in the DVD and watch Samir, Michael, and Peter do it for us.