Movie Review – Office Space

Office Space (1999)
Written & Directed by Mike Judge

Somewhere between the toil of blue-collar factory workers and the plush offices of Wall Street investment bros lies the mind-numbing drudgery of office work. Cubicles compose a physical and psychological labyrinth of corporate buzz speak. Inane conversations happen in the breakroom while tiny wars pop up between cubicle neighbors over the music volume or the prevalence of personal decor. Mike Judge was inspired by his time as a temp worker and then some time working in Silicon Valley as an engineer. This led to his Milton short films being featured on MTV’s Liquid Television. The success of Beavis & Butthead opened up new opportunities for the filmmaker, and he took this seed of an idea and transformed it into the cult hit Office Space.

Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) is a programmer at Initech, a company that makes, well…that’s a little unclear. His frustrations are shared by co-workers Samir Nagheenanajar (Ajay Naidu) and Michael Bolton (David Herman). They come to work, do things, never really see an outcome, head home, sleep, repeat. Their chief annoyance is vice president Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole), a man with seemingly nothing to do but hover over his workers and micro-manage them. A pair of consultants, The Bobs, are brought in to help downsize the company by reevaluating workers’ roles. Peter just so happens to go to a hypnotherapy session with his girlfriend Anne and is transformed into a laid-back guy, which endears him to the Bobs. They see him as a “straight shooter” and listen closely to his sentiments on this horrible work environment. 

I can remember the first time I saw Office Space. It was early 2000 in the dorm room across the hall from mine. Within minutes the picture became a favorite of my friend group and, like many other people my age, became endlessly quotable. Judge was a chief cultural voice for ”elder” Millennials like myself. Growing up, we didn’t have cable television (rural and Christian fundies), so I never watched Beavis & Butthead. On the other hand, King of the Hill was a household favorite, so I was in tune with Judge’s particular brand of satire. He somehow always knows how to stealthily critique the very audiences who are watching his work. Even something like Idiocracy seems to fly over the heads of the people it targets. 

For young people on the precipice of entering such a corporate life, Office Space is Judge’s call to us to make sure we live our lives well. It’s couched in a snarky, Gen X-style sense of humor, but Office Space is a romantic movie at its core. It imagines that people can break free from the corporate system and find ways to live and be happy with their work. Judge goes beyond just cubicle farms and comments on the concrete wastelands of strip malls and the kitschy chain restaurants that come with them. Peter’s object of affection is Joanna (Jennifer Aniston), a waitress at a TGIFridays/Applebees-style sit-down. Her manager (played by Judge) is constantly pointing out the amount of button flair on her suspenders compared to her annoying co-worker. The refrain is that he’s not telling her what she has to do but is pointing out how she’s happily doing the minimum.

While my career path differs from these characters, I see similar corporate systems creeping into public education. The issue of “flair” is very evident in elementary schools, where teachers are praised for their “cute” classroom decor and organization. Now, does any of this cuteness translate into confident students who can showcase their strengths? That’s debatable. Over the years, I would decorate a little more, but my emphasis was always on functionality. I also liked leaving space for student work, especially things made collaboratively. In American culture, there’s a desire for people to display their personalities but only within specific parameters. If you walk around wearing a Soviet flag-style t-shirt, I doubt people will greatly appreciate your self-expression. Self-expression, like in Joanna’s case, is not about showing people your personality but a means of conformity. 

While 1999 saw two big movies about breaking through the illusions of mundane existence (The Matrix and American Beauty), Office Space does so without attempting to be some grand, over-the-top masterpiece. It’s messy and uneven in certain places, but that’s what many people came to love about Judge’s style. He’s okay with things not being perfect, accepting that imperfection is a form of protest against slick, focus-grouped entertainment. I appreciated that Peter isn’t an ideal rebel character; his confidence gets the better of him and leads to a reasonably tense finale where deus ex machina swoops in to save the day. 

In 2022, a movie like Office Space wouldn’t get a theatrical release, and in reality, its presence in video rental stores helped it gain the cult following it now has. I still think our theaters need to make spaces for these smaller movies; it’s a relief from the inundation of Disney-produced hyper-entertainment that seems to fill up every screen. Office Space exists in a heightened reality, a live-action version of the cartoon worlds that Judge became famous for. But it doesn’t feel less tangible because of that, the frustrations of its characters are still profoundly relatable, and in many ways, our world has become more cartoonish so that it has come to resemble Judge’s satire frighteningly.

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