Office Space Review

by Chad Polenz (ChadPolenz AT aol DOT com)
March 7th, 1999

Office Space

Chad'z rating: **1/2 (out of 4 = okay/average)

1999, R, 90 minutes [1 hour, 30 minutes]


starring: Ron Livingston (Peter Gibbons), David Herman (Michael Bolton), Gary Cole (Bill Lumbergh), Jennifer Aniston (Joanne); produced by Daniel Rappaport, Michael Rotenberg; written and directed by Mike Judge; based on the animated “Office Space” and “Milton” serials created by Mike Judge.

Seen Feb. 26, 1999 at 7:40 p.m. at the Hoyts Crossgates Cinema 18 (Guilderland, NY), theater #18, with my brother John for free using my Hoyts critic’s pass. [Theater rating: ****: excellent seats, sound and picture]

Making a biting satire of the real working world shouldn’t be too difficult of a task. Most people can relate to the subtle politics of the modern office environment and how going to work is like stepping into a whole other world. But trying to sum it all up is a job itself, which might explain why “Office Space” only scratches the surface.

You don’t see too many movies or television shows where people actually work regular jobs (most of us aren’t cops, FBI agents or criminals). That’s probably because Hollywood figures 1) people don’t want to be reminded of their work in their leisure time and 2) what could be so interesting about an office?

The truth is the working world is probably the most complex and grittiest reality possible. Not even the most gut-wrenching human drama, fictional or non-fictional, could stack up to it. That’s the biggest obstacle standing in the way of this film’s success and it could have overcome it by simply sticking to its guns.

The film shows a lot of promise throughout its first act, especially the first few scenes alone. The setting seems to be L.A. in the present day where we’re introduced to a gang of working stiffs at some type of corporation whose jobs involve working with computers, fax machines, memos, meetings, overtime, staplers, cubicles, constantly-ringing telephones and of course intimidating bosses.

Right from the get-go there’s a tasty sense of satire here. Our hero, Peter Gibbons (Livingston), finds trying to maneuver through traffic with the thousands of other nine-to-fivers is a tedious, painful chore. He does everything he can to move just that extra 1 mph faster but he never seems to move any faster than an old man using a walker on the sidewalk. It’s the fable of “The Tortoise and the Hare” for the 1990s!

Then there’s the office itself where Peter’s daily exercise in futility begins. His co-workers aren’t exactly his best friends since each has their own personality problems. There’s Michael Bolton (Herman), whose shared name with the adult contemporary singer is played for laughs but soon becomes annoying (maybe it’s so we can emphasize with him?). There’s also Samir (Ajay ), who probably emigrated to the U.S. from India thinking his smarts would lead him to success, but he’s just another schlob.

The other characters include an annoying fat secretary who worships the boss, a paranoid veteran worker afraid of downsizing, and a mentally-challenged man named Milton (an under-used Stephen Root playing the character who starred in Judge’s animated shorts upon which the film is based) whose life revolves around his love for staplers and secret yearning to burn the building down if he’s pushed around by the boss one more time.

Speaking of whom, the boss here, under-sub-assistant V.P. Bill Lumbergh (Cole), does make for a good catalyst of the story and enemy of the characters. He’s very soft-spoken but in a menacing way (he seems to start out every sentence with, “yeaaaah... we’re going to need you to... greaaaat”). Everyone can relate to that.

Considering all this, it’s clear the film definitely has potential. The first act is very funny as it utilizes a lot of character interaction to get the ball rolling and establish the satirical, often cartoony setting. For example, Peter forgets to put a cover sheet on a memo and he is constantly subtlety scolded for not doing something so routine.

But where the film begins to weaken is when an actual plot begins to form and the focus shifts from the office space to Peter’s personal life. There’s a lame joke involving Peter having an epiphany and having a constant good feeling. Then the company brings in two specialists to interview the workers to see who’s really needed and who’s not. By this time Peter has become so disgruntled with everything he simply tells them the truth and in the process is recommended for a promotion for his “potential.” This just didn’t seem realistic to me.

There’s also a sub-plot involving Peter’s crush on a waitress named Joanne (Aniston, who basically rips off her performance from the first few seasons of “Friends”) who loathes her job too and endures the same type of work B.S. as Peter. She isn’t cheery enough, her boss says, and she certainly can’t compete with the dorky waiter who seems to think waiting on customers is the best thing that ever happened to him. Needless to say Peter and Joanne hit it off, but their relationship is used mostly as reserve for hit-and-miss jokes and a poor attempt at a cute romance.

The film takes an even bigger turn for the worse by the time the third reel rolls in which Peter, Michael and Samir seek vengeance on their company. It’s basically the same as “going postal,” but with computers. Their plan never really makes sense to begin with and quickly blows up in their faces.

The ending proves that Judge just couldn’t write his way out of the hole the film dug for itself and is just another example of what happens when television guys try to do movies.

So much more could have been done with “Office Space” had it just lived up to its title. Its spoof of office politicking really works, so why get so wrapped up in a plot?

(3/6/99) [also by Judge: “Beavis And Butt-Head Do America”]

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© 1999 Chad Polenz

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