Some movies are knockouts from the get go. They sweep you up like Ralph Fiennes gathering you in his arms and then…and then…and then there are some movies that you always knew you liked, but then they take off their glasses, run their fingers through their hair, and suddenly you realize you're in love. Office Space, for me, is in the latter category.
I under appreciated Office Space when it came out in 1999. It lacks the bravado of my official favorites for that year, but repeated viewings (thank you, cable!) have proved it to be a lasting gem. If you currently hold, have ever held, or ever expect to hold a job in your life, you will find something in Office Space familiar. For instance, just because you don't work in the food service industry doesn't mean you don't have a yappy, fake, overeager, overblonde co-worker named Byron, excuse me, Brian tattling on you and sucking up to your supervisor; just because you don't work in an office doesn't mean you've never had multiple bosses correcting the same mistake (or one boss who won't just tell you what your mistake is), or have never sat through a deadening corporate meeting.
Gangstas: Samir Nagonnaworkhereanymore
& Michael Bolton
(Ajay Naidu & David Herman)
These sorts of affronts that make work life hell are respectfully catalogued in Office Space. After a particularly aggravating day, programmer Peter Gibbons asks his neighbor Lawrence if anybody in his line of work--construction--ever accuses him of having "a case of the Mondays" if he seems to be feeling down. Lawrence, aghast, replies, "No, man, no. God no! A fella'd probably get his ass kicked for saying something like that." And that's Peter's first glimpse of a better life. His real breakthrough comes when his girlfriend takes him to a hypnotherapist who puts Peter in a state of nonchalance, then dies and leaves him there. Freed from his misery, Peter begins to free himself from the things that make him miserable. He sleeps through the Saturday he was supposed to spend at work, and blithely hangs up on his girlfriend when she calls to yell at him for doing so. He had the feeling she was cheating on him anyway ("I get that feeling, too," his friends concurred without follow-up). He violates one taboo by inviting a waitress to lunch during her shift, then demolishes another when he frankly discusses his dubious work habits with visiting hatchet men Emboldened by these early successes, Peter becomes more lackadaisically brazen. Against Geto Boys' rap declaration "Damn, it Feels Good to be a Gangsta," he commits acts of small and liberating vandalism in the office, while management and serf alike are struck dumb by his unprecedented behavior. Eventually, his sense of entitlement becomes hubristic; he dares too much and risks a terrible end.

Gangsta: Milton (Stephen Root)
With Beavis and Butt-head, King of the Hill, and Office Space, (based on a series of short "Milton" cartoons which I haven't seen) writer-director Mike Judge has staked out a place in three seemingly threadbare genres-adventures of idiot teens, suburban sitcom, and workplace comedy-and invested them with rare suppleness and invention. Judge is a smart guy and a humanist who honors his creations because he has insight into the entire context of their lives. Beavis and Butt-head are as stupid as you'd care to allege, but their characterizations are authentic and specific. They are anti-cute boys (after a body cavity search in Beavis and Butthead Do America, Butt-head wonders, "Did I just score?") of a familiar stripe.

Butt-head, for instance, has a mouthful of braces, representing a skewed-though far from uncommon-vision of child welfare where faith in orthodontia trumps parental involvement; and as repulsive and misguided as they are, there's a poignancy to how blasé they are about the beatings they take, and how they expect abandonment so utterly that they are not at all phased when it inevitably happens. King of the Hill is both a return and a reinvention of family sitcoms in which father doesn't know everything, but he is a thoughtful, capable, adult, and an anomaly in the in the history of television in that Hank Hill has only a high school education and yet isn't fat, crude, or buffoonish. Even my beloved Simpsons wasn't willing to take that leap.

With Office Space, Judge looks at jobs and takes seriously the indignities and compromises that come with a paycheck, but with an inclusiveness and moderation that never panders to a smug Power to the People mentality. Gibbons is a primitive, as his simian name indicates. His dream is to do nothing, and it's a kick to watch him start to live that ethos. His glib attacks on cubicle walls and rah-rah company banners are happy and welcome, but they pale with the ferocity with which his displaced co-workers Michael and Samir take after a hated piece of equipment because they made an honest investment in their work and were betrayed. The tenuous and disingenuous loyalty businesses show toward their serfs is more than a matter of cheese moving, it's an assault on personal security and dignity. You can hear it in the chortling of the managers and "efficiency experts" Bob and Bob in

Gangsta: Joanna (Jennifer Aniston) shows her
boss (Mike Judge) some flair
Office Space, and in the chirpy tones of the Grim Reapers from Cosmodemonic HR who occasionally descend upon us, concealing their bat wings and sickles beneath Ann Taylor suits. It's a power as fickle as it is ruthless-the file directly below the delinquent Peter's in the Bobs' extraneous employee pile is that of his "unholy pig of a boss"-and a necessary fixation of helpless rage. There are dozens of other keenly observed examples of petty degradation in Office Space, but also an awareness that there's not much to be done about them. Perhaps that's why so many critics accused OS of losing it's nerve/vision in the last half. But as crappy as life and work can be, there is an integrity to Office Space that cannot let it get out of hand. Peter is not Norma Rae, and he certainly doesn't work in Matewan, and to turn his revolt into a polemic would be inappropriate and an insult to labor. The outlandish equation he makes between a bit of stupid officiousness in Joanna's job with Nazism is a sign of his corruption, and it isn't permitted to stand. There's petulance in the world and there's oppression, and Judge is sensible enough to know which is which.

Gangsta: Peter (Ron Livinston)
That's why his use of rap music is so canny. It a good one-off joke when the dweebiest looking white guy in the film is caught enthusiastically singing it in his car during the opening credits. It gets better when he turns it down, lowers his voice to a mutter, and locks his door when a black street salesman makes his rounds past the car, and got another ironic twist when the rap lover's name was revealed to be Michael Bolton. Judge doesn't settle there, though. His mating of "Damn, it Feels Good to be a Gangsta" with Peter's low key rebellion and "Still" with Michael and Samir's violence evince a keen understanding of the fraud of outlaw

chic and the wincing pain of disenfranchisement, but appropriating music that reflects an experience so far removed from that of the inhabitants of Office Space gives both an extra comic dimension. And if that weren't enough, two of the songs on the soundtrack are hiphop and R&B renditions of the hit country songs "Take this Job and Shove It" and "9 to 5." Like rap and R&B, country music is the work of a traditional underclass, but the combination is fresh and surprising. Furthermore, both songs are from a distinct time and place, the recession era 80s, where men telling their bosses to shove jobs was an empowering daydream and under-appreciated women slaving away was commonplace. Office Space, however, is fixed on the crest of the biggest economic boom in the history of the United States. White male job insecurity-especially for technical types-was at an all time low, but it's a woman, Peter's waitress girlfriend Joanna, who tells off her boss with flair, and men who thanklessly labor on iffy projects (in this case, the Y2K problem, which proved to be a fin de cycle non-event).

Gangsta: Lawrence
(Diedrich Bader)

Office Space is ultimately about something as unfashionable as living with adult choices and responsibility rather than succumbing to juvenile impulsiveness. After a fight in which Peter's proletariat poses mask basic sexual jealousy, Joanna tells him to call her when he grows up, but since that won't ever happen don't call. But he does grow up, and gracefully. Mike Judge is turning out to be one of America's greatest, and unlikeliest, advocates of maturity.

Written by Sharon C. McGovern

From Vol. 27
Back to Cobra Movies

Gangstas: Joanna & Peter