Thursday, December 30, 2010

"Office Space" (1999)

Starring Ron Livingston, Jennifer Aniston and David Herman
Written and directed by Mike Judge

"Office Space" is one of those comedies that really grew on me over time.  The first time I saw it, I thought it was alright, but nothing special.  That's a pattern that would repeat with me on other movies, most recently "The Hangover."  Over time, however, catching bits and pieces of "Office Space" on TV, or the occasional DVD viewing with friends, the film just sort of grew in my mind, the restrained absurdity of it taking root.  "Office Space" failed to ignite the box office, but it has rightfully taken its place since then as a beloved cult classic.  Tonight I went and saw a double feature consisting of "Office Space" and "Fight Club."  At first glance, these two films might have little in common, but upon closer inspection, this is actually a pretty amazing pairing.

Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) is an unhappy software programmer at Initech, toiling away day after day with little drive or motivation.  His friends Michael Bolton (David Herman) and Samir Nagheenanajar (Ajay Naidu) are also frustrated with their repetitive, unfulfilling corporate existence.  Peter is in the death throes of a poor relationship with his anorexic girlfriend who convinces him to visit an occupational hypnotherapist who might be able to help him.  But while under hypnoses, the therapist keels over and dies, leaving Peter in a sort of uncaring, conscious hypnotic state.  With his inhibitions removed, he suddenly finds himself realizing that he does have the power to change his lot in life.

His boss, Lumbergh (Gary Cole), an obnoxious manager, asks him to come in on Saturday, but Peter blows him off.  Two consultants arrive at the company, which can only mean one thing: downsizing.  While Michael and Samir end up losing their jobs, Peter manages to impress the Bobs (John C. McGinley and Paul Wilson) by telling them that his real problem is that he's simply not motivated to work harder.  Somehow they interpret this as that Peter is not being challenged, and end up blaming Lumbergh for it.  But being given a promotion doesn't sit well with Peter while his friends are tossed to the curb and the three of them come up with a plan: Michael has designed a virus that will skim fractions of a cent from certain bank transactions made at the company, which will over time build itself into a nice little nest egg for the three of them. 

Meanwhile, Peter has finally asked out the attractive waitress at the restaurant across the street from Initech that he's had his eye on for a while.  Joanna (Jennifer Aniston) is much like Peter, struggling to get through a job that brings her little joy.  The two bond quickly, and begin dating.  But things become strained when Joanna learns about Peter's plan to steal money from the company. 

Sprinkled throughout the rest of "Office Space" are a number of bizarre characters and subplots, including a coworker who is sure he'll be canned by the consultants and attempts suicide, only to be struck by a drunk driver and winning a massive settlement, or a mousy, stuttering office worker who is constantly dumped on by the management and other employees plotting to burn the building down.

"Office Space" isn't a wild, slapstick comedy, which is probably why it works so well.  It's really the cast that shines here, selling the deadpan script like gold.  The wacky characters are just bizarre personalities that float in and out of the narrative.  Milton (Stephen Root) is a riot, a mumbling, bumbling office drone who can't stand up for himself no matter how mistreated he gets.  Bits like having Lumbergh move Milton's desk to the basement and asking him to "deal with the cockroach problem" or being the only person in the office not to get a piece of birthday cake are hilarious.  Another bizarre character, Drew (Greg Pits) who's obsessed with sex ("I'm gonna show her my 'Oh-Face'!") also gets a lot of laughs.  There are great little supporting roles populated by recognizable character actors like Dietrich Bader as Peter's wise but simple neighbor Lawrence ("What would I do with a million dollars?  Two chicks at the same time.") and Orlando Jones as a laid-off software programmer selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door.

"Office Space" doesn't have the tightest narrative around, it sort of moves from funny scene to funny scene without much sense of rising action or even much of a climax, really.  The romantic subplot between Peter and Joanna is fairly rudimentary, but it works.  But the story is really kind of secondary to the characters and calling attention to the absurdity of corporate life.  Recurring gags about printer jams and TPS cover sheets are gold, and all the funnier for anyone who's ever worked in any kind of office setting.  What makes "Office Space" get even funnier for me, personally, over time is not just the fact that every time I watch it I hear great new lines in the script, but also knowing that this sort of situation, ridiculous as it may seem, isn't all that far off from the truth. 

"Office Space" is hilarious.  Maybe not on the first try, but damn if it isn't one of the best workplace comedies out there.