Work still sucks – Remembering Office Space at 20

Mike Judge’s 1999 comedy brilliantly captured the dingy, coffee-ringed mundanity of the workplace.

Words

Gem Wheeler

In the past 20 years, comedies set among the claustrophobic cubicles of the modern office have become commonplace. From Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s The Office (and its US namesake), with David Brent and co exuding bleak bonhomie before yet another pratfall, to Graham Linehan’s appealing bunch of sidelined eccentrics in The IT Crowd, the strange, familiar beasts of the corporate world have found their natural home on the small screen.

Before all of them, though, there was Office Space. Released in 1999, Mike Judge’s first live-action film is a portrait of a software company and its employees as rendered by the director’s uniquely warped comic sensibility. Like many other cult comedies of its era, the film tanked at the box office, barely recouping its budget. However, steady home video sales via word-of-mouth recommendations eventually won it the fanbase it deserved.

Judge, creator of Beavis and Butthead and King of the Hill (with Greg Daniels), based the film on his own 1991 Milton animated shorts created for Saturday Night Live. Milton Waddams was relegated to a supporting role in Office Space, but Stephen Root’s unforgettable performance ensured the character and his cherished red stapler a place in pop-culture history. Peering from behind bottle-bottom glasses so thick that Root needed contact lenses to see, the perennially thwarted Milton is just one of the several worker drones endeared to us by Judge’s inimitable perspective: one kinder, perhaps, than other corporate chroniclers, but just as searching.

As with Judge’s underrated Idiocracy, there’s a warmth to the satire of Office Space, and an implicit acknowledgement that we are all, in the end, fellow travellers in the same leaky boat. Some of us, however, are bailing out rather more water than others. It’s this dawning realisation that motivates programmer Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) – aided and abetted by his embittered colleagues, Michael Bolton (David Herman) and Samir Nagheenanajar (Ajay Naidu) – to exact a quiet revenge.

When his therapist dies of a heart attack shortly after hypnotising him, Peter’s newly acquired insouciance wins him plaudits at wretched software company Initech, letting him in on the secret that Michael and Samir are shortly to be, in HR parlance, ‘let go’. This shared revelation sparks a scheme, inspired by, of all things, Superman III: small amounts of money will be imperceptibly removed from Initech’s account by a computer virus, gradually building up to the fortune of the trio’s dreams. The plan works a little too well, leaving our trio with a major problem on their hands.

Judge’s commitment to depicting the blandness of everyday bureaucracy didn’t go down well with bosses at 20th Century Fox, ironically enough. For them, Office Space was too dull, too fixated on the dingy, coffee-ringed mundanity of the workplace to pull in a wide audience. They were right – at least in the short term – yet it’s those same traits which ultimately earned the film its cult status. The in-jokes, the petty rivalries, the sheer grinding boredom: it’s all instantly recognisable, and weirdly cathartic to see realised on screen.

The casting played a big part in this. Livingston is ideally suited to the role of Peter, emboldened by his new inner calm, while Herman and Naidu make an indelible impression as his hapless co-conspirators. Bolton, permanently enraged by the failures of his office equipment (“PC Load Letter? What the fuck does that mean?”) and traumatised for life by the name he shares with a certain titan of adult contemporary music, is given many of the best lines.

Diedrich Bader’s slacker neighbour, Lawrence, is another supporting players who lends the film its charm, while Jennifer Aniston – Judge’s one concession to the executive demands for more famous names to be added to the cast – brings her own brand of humour to the role of likeable waitress, Joanna. Then, of course, there’s Gary Cole as Bill Lumbergh, Peter’s smarmy douchebag of a boss who oozes self-importance from every pore.

The combination of surreal humour and barely repressed rage is potent throughout – one memorable scene unites our heroes in a Mafia-style hit on an erring printer, Livingston prowling like a capo behind the others as they deal blow after blow, egged on by the Geto Boys’ ‘Still’ on the soundtrack. It’s this legacy that lingers in Judge’s current sitcom, Silicon Valley, while the enthusiastic reception for Boots Riley’s recent Sorry To Bother You hints at the timelessness of a combination of wit and righteous anger at the iniquities of corporate life.

As relevant as ever 20 years on from its initial release, Office Space will be funny until the robots finally replace us all. And when that day arrives, let’s see if they’ll come in on Saturday.

Published 18 Feb 2019

Tags: Jennifer Aniston Mike Judge Ron Livingston Stephen Root

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