Office Space Review

by Edwin Jahiel (e-jahiel AT ux1 DOT cso DOT uiuc DOT edu)
February 25th, 1999


OFFICE SPACE *** Directed and written by Mike Judge, based on his "Milton" animated shorts. Photography, Tim Suhrstedt. Editing, David Rennie. Production design, Edward McAvoy. Music, John Frizzell. Cast : Gary Cole (Bill Lumbergh), Ron Livingston (Peter), Jennifer Aniston (Joanna), David Herman (Michael Bolton), Ajay Naidu (Samir), Stephen Root (Milton). Produced by Michael Rotenberg and Daniel Rappaport. A 20th Century Fox release. About 92 minutes. R (language)

Would you believe that it's been almost twenty years since "9 to 5" (1980), the famously funny revolt and revenge of three women secretaries? It's also the first movie that comes to my mind in the office sufferers category. The topic has been an element in some other films too ("The Apartment" of 1960, etc.) but in wider contexts. In more recent years, it has been neglected. A major exception is "Clockwatchers" (1998), a first feature by Jill Sprecher, revolving around four temporary workers, all women.

"Office Space" concerns three male employees of Initech. What the corporation does exactly is unclear, a word that in most cases would be a criticism of a plot, but here is perfectly suited to the absurd atmosphere. For that matter, the tasks are not even clear to the employees.

Work is a hateful daymare, the subalterns are purely and simply slaves in tight cubicles that remind me of the cramped interiors of U-boats. Or else they're like chained rowers of Roman galleys, except that the modular enclosures can and do get moved around, to the workers' distress.
The three young men work (so to speak) mostly with inimical computers and printers. There is just one smiling face in the office, a jocular female telephone operator, who, like a voice chip, ceaselessly answers with exactly the same, short phrase.

The madness of Intertech is lorded over by an oily, falsely polite, robot-like dictator Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole). He keeps reminding Peter (Ron Livingston)-- the main focus of this horror story-- that he didn't put "the new cover sheets on the TPS reports." This becomes a leitmotiv as other managers reiterate it.

In their cluster of cubicles, Peter's fellow-sufferers and pals are a fellow called Michael Bolton (the questions about the "real" Michael Bolton are another leitmotiv) who looks like Microsoft's Bill Gates, and the exotic Samir whose computer whizness will play a major part in the plot.
All employees are miserable. To add injury to insult, Initech has called in efficiency experts in order to eliminate some personnel. The diverse interviews are a howl.

Peter, whose job has made of his life one big dysfunction, has been seeing a hypnotherapist at the request of his girlfriend. During the last session (also a howl of black humor), the healer also hypnotizes himself and keels over dead. But somehow Peter is liberated by his own trance. He embarks on civil disobedience vis-a-vis Intertech, starts living it up, breaks all the rules,has an affair with restaurant waitress Joanna (Jennifer Aniston) who herself rebels against the stupidity of her workplace (another howl).
When Peter reappears at the office in non-regulation casual garb and an "I don't give a damn" attitude, and after he tells the experts that he hates his job and gets no work done, all this is interpreted as signs of leadership. So Peter gets upgraded. But with his two buddies, he plans and executes a revolt of the slaves. It's no "Spartacus" but it is pretty funny, and leads to a computer scam.

The movie is the first live feature by Mike Judge ("Beavis and Butt-Head,""King of the Hill"). It is satirical from the deja vu but cleverly shot opening sequence. Driving to work, bosses in Porsches, underlings in ordinary cars, manual laborers, and all others are equalized when caught in excruciatingly slow, stop and go traffic. At roadside, an old man with a walker always stays ahead of them. (The film was shot in Austin, Texas)

All is not perfect in the movie. The tempo of the first part is fine, but the relatively rookie director does not increase the rhythm gradually, does not follow the rule that in comedy (black slapstick in this case), if you don't keep accelerating, you fall behind. Part 2, the scam, loses the impetus, and there's also the problem of no specific suspense items to keep the viewer going.

But Judge makes up for much of this by having a fourth employee, the older, quirky, bumbling Milton who can hardly utter his phrases. His function is a mystery --partly and hilariously explained later. His role, conceived with comic cruelty (par for the course in farces), is the hardest in the movie, along with Gary Cole's variations on a one-sided character. Milton is played by Stephen Root who steals the show whenever he's around.

" Le mauvais gout mene au crime" (Stendhal)

Edwin Jahiel's movie reviews are at

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