Writer-director Mike Judge’s Office Space is a genuine cult success: No one caught it in the theater, but everyone’s seen it. The film opened in February 1999 to just over $4 million, good enough to finish eighth in the weekend box-office tally, and it fell every week after. By its fourth week in release, it was down to playing around 300 screens, seemingly doomed to be forgotten as another comedy dumped on viewers in the spring hiatus between awards-season releases and summer tentpoles. But thank God above that Office Space didn’t go quietly into the night, instead taking root and finding new life on home video, DVD, and cable. It’s a sharp, quotable, fantastic comedy that takes aim at the modern workplace better than any film before it. What’s more, it succeeds at being a pointedly 1990s film even while striving for and achieving a timelessness that makes it fresh a decade after the fact.
If workplace dramas and comedies of the 1980s played up or satirized that era’s fetishistic love of wealth, then Office Space marked a change in direction by wallowing in the utter blandness of cubicle life and the feeling of being trapped for eternity between four gray walls. The opening sequence perfectly encapsulates the modern job force’s seemingly endless pursuit of fruitless goals: Peter (Ron Livingston) is driving to work and trying to control his anger at being stuck in what’s bound to be his daily traffic jam. He shifts lanes constantly only to find his progress slows even more: He’s even passed by an old man walking on foot. In a matter of minutes, Judge has set a tone and pace, begun to sketch out his tired hero, and made it clear that he completely understand the horrible minutiae of daily life. Peter’s job — at a faceless corporation called Initech — is the kind of quintessentially 1990s filler occupation, one involving piles of memos and vague data entry, but Judge ups the game by making Peter’s specific duties during the film a representation of both of the era and its utter futility: He’s working on updating bank software for the Y2K switch, a phrase that once conjured mild worry but now feels as pathetic and small as Peter knows it is.
Judge surrounds Peter with the bizarre array of characters that are familiar to anyone who’s ever served hard time in a cubicle: the idiotic managers, the unsettling colleagues, the reluctant friends. Peter’s latched onto a pair of coworkers — Samir (Ajay Naidu), who’s just happy to be working, and Michael Bolton (David Herman), a white guy who loves Snoop — not out of any sense of common interest but because they’re the least crazy people at the office. They’re the ones Peter drags to the dull strip mall across the street for coffee breaks just to get away from the office for a few minutes.
But the film’s real genius is in its central gimmick: Peter meets with a hypnotherapist who puts him into a serene, peaceful state in hopes of relieving his stress but who keels over from a heart attack before he can snap Peter out of it. As a result, Peter puts in less and less effort at the office, dressing more casually and even blowing off work to go fishing. He’s happy for the first time in his life, and even winds up dating Joanna (Jennifer Aniston), the waitress from the restaurant near his building. His laid-back attitude impresses a pair of consultants (Paul Wilson and the fantastic John C. McGinley) who wind up promoting him, which leads to Judge’s real message: The most American way to get ahead is to fail upward. Peter was a good guy and hard worker, but it wasn’t until he became inept and uncaring that management decided he was worth being elevated to a higher position. Peter’s bosses are idiots, and that’s no accident. For Judge, the corporate world values stupidity over everything else.
The bulk of the film deals with a mild, farcical plot in which Peter, Samir, and Michael try to defraud the company by turning their own Y2K distractions against them, but that’s merely fuel for Judge’s larger story engine that skewers the blandness and desperation of modern workers. Judge’s comedy is smartly written and eminently quotable, and it proves its intelligence by being sly and funny all on its own instead of relying on broader physical comedy or predictable punch lines. On paper, three guys destroying a fax machine in a field doesn’t sound compelling, but Judge’s characters are so well drawn that it’s fantastic and hilarious. Some of the best moments in the film, though, are the ones that re-create the mundane bits of office life people spend years drinking to forget:
That ever-present sense of an only slightly blurred reality is what made the film resonate so well with audiences, even if they didn’t find it until home video. Filmed in a bright, matter-of-fact tone by cinematographer Tim Suhrstedt, the environments of the film feel all too familiar to current and former cube workers. Judge’s cast is pitch-perfect, as well. Livingston, who’s handsome in a rumpled and unassuming way, is the ideal conduit for Peter’s frustration and eventual conquest of his disdain for his job. Naidu and Herman will never have funnier or more recognizable roles, either: Naidu mostly traffics in bit parts, and Herman of late has mostly stuck to voice work for animated series. Even Aniston, who at the time was only halfway through the decade-long run of “Friends,” rises above her sitcom persona to be appropriately charming without sacrificing intelligence. And of course, no mention of the film would be complete without a deep bow toward Gary Cole as Bill Lumbergh, Peter’s insipid boss. Cole stole every scene he was in and owes his current career to the movie, and he’s fantastic in it.
Judge’s film succeeds by being a witty, unyielding attack on the vapidity of corporate America and its tendency to reward the incompetent while crushing the willing. Office Space is a comedy, and a great one, but its satiric heart is born of the sad truths of adulthood echoed in a commencement speech several years later by David Foster Wallace. Addressing Kenyon College’s graduating seniors in 2005, the author said: “The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what ‘day in, day out’ really means. There happen to be whole large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.” This is the same conclusion Peter comes to with the help of Joanna, who tells him, basically, to stop whining so much. Everyone hates their job, she says, but the point of life is to find something outside it that makes you happy. Judge knows that work sucks, but he’s also smart enough to know that you have to laugh at it.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.