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Entries in Office Space [1999] (1)

Tuesday
May032011

Office Space (1999)

Becoming Lumbergh

If you work in an office, Mike Judge's Office Space is a great litmus test for where your career's at.  For anyone just starting out in the business world, as I was when I first saw the film twelve years ago, the movie is a perfectly observed, hilarious send-up of corporate culture and its water-cooler whack-jobs.  Stay in the same place long enough, and you may find yourself wincing in recognition at the middle-management caricatures that you've actually become.  And if you're in the wrong job for decades, you'll likley cringe and guffaw at the desperate, over-the-hill paranoiacs who also--somehow, tragically--resemble you.

What I didn't realize until the other night--after having watched the film for the tenth time--is that Office Space isn't a comedy about the dream of not having to work anymore; it's a motivational comedy about finding the job that's right for you and going after it.  When I was twenty-two, Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) was a hero to me, a guy whose trip to an occupational hypnotherapist renders him incapable of worrying about the repercussions of goofing off at work.  He goes from non-committal complainer to workplace revolutionary, trading boss-sweat for the cool, refreshing air of a mid-day fishing trip.

His cavalier attitude worries his software-engineer co-workers, Michael (David Herman) and Samir (Ajay Naidu), who are already freaked out at their company's hiring of two layoff-happy "consultants". Undeterred, Peter blows off mandatory working-weekends and finally musters the courage to ask a waitress named Joanna (Jennifer Aniston) out on a date.

Judge holds Peter up as a mirror to the ridiculous microcosm of office politics, where stealing an employee's prized stapler is more of a power-move than sleeping one's way to the top.  It's easy to laugh at Milton (Stephen Root), the mumbling, splotchy-faced desk squirrel incapable of asserting himself, or at Tom (Richard Riehle), the ineffective ball of panic.  They're slightly exaggerated cartoon characters drawn from real-life archetypes.  And Peter is their messiah, leading a charge of laziness in the face of his workaholic, soul-dead boss, Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole).

As I've grown older, though, I've begun to see Peter for what he really is: An unhappy, directionless guy who, possibly through the uninspiring gray walls and grayer people around him, has completely checked out and become a drain on the system--even before the hypnosis.  I used to laugh at the way he described his work day to the consultants--two generic lumps of respiring bureaucracy, both named Bob (John C. McGinley and Paul Wilson)--with claims that he zones out at his desk for most of the day and only achieves "about fifteen minutes of actual work" during any given week.

But as a middle-manager myself, listening to that makes my skin crawl.  It's still very funny, but I realize now that the office was never Peter's enemy; it was a symptom of his own lack of motivation to do what he really wanted to do with his life.  At the outset, he claims that if he were to become an instant millionaire that he'd do nothing all day.  But by film's end (Spoiler), he finds satisfaction putting in long, hard hours as a construction worker.  I wonder if he might have saved himself, his friends, and his office (particularly the building) a lot of undue stress if he'd had the courage to make himself happy instead of riding the regular-paycheck train to a probable fiftieth-birthday heart attack.

Lumbergh and the Bobs are clueless, selfish, sometimes heartless tools of industry.  But they are also the keepers of the professional and social contract that Peter and his friends signed when they aimed for stability instead of risking starvation by launching a start-up or becoming street artists.  I don't hate Lumbergh anymore; partially because I understand his unfortunate role in the great, cold commerce machine, and partially because I've become a version of him.  It's no fun having to follow up with employees on e-mails or deliver frivolous company news at meetings to an audience of half-interested co-workers who'd rather be fishing.  The best any of us in that position can do is to be as human as possible and to never forget how silly the business world really is.

Sorry if this review is a tad navel-gaze-y (and for my over-reliance on hyphenated phrases).  I figure most people reading this have already seen Office Space, and don't need to be reminded of the awesome photocopier scene, the uplifting "Damn it Feels Good to be a Gangster" montage, or Joanna's wonderfully telling arguments with her manager over her uniform's lack of "flare".  This is a comedy classic that's only dated by the Y2K sub-plot (which leads to a scam that I used to think weighed the second half of the movie down, but which I find not nearly as egregious today).  It would also be unfair of me to ruin all the great jokes and quotable lines for anyone who hasn't seen this yet.

Office Space is one of my favorite films, and it's a credit to Mike Judge's genius (an over-used word that I feel 100% confident invoking here) that it not only holds up but is also so honest in its assessment of people and workplaces that it can mean different things to different people at different points in their lives.  Best of all, Judge holds his protagonist accountable, acknowledging that there's no way to half-ass happiness: We either take the plunge and dare to be happy or resign ourselves to sitting in boxes, manufacturing widgets and failure.