25 Years Later, Office Space Is Still Bleakly Hilarious

Comedy Features Office Space
25 Years Later, Office Space Is Still Bleakly Hilarious

The horror of watching Office Space as a preteen, then in my early thirties, is growing up to recognize protagonist Peter Gibbons’ tacked-on smile during the first act. I don’t drive, so I’ve never felt the humiliation of watching an old man move faster than my two-ton vehicle. Otherwise, though, I’ve been right there: masking in front of my bosses, working in a half-open beige cube, insecure about layoffs but barely holding it together as is. Or… you’re one of those annoying online commenters who thinks 1990s films about cubicle life, like Fight Club and The Matrix, are “whiny.” Surely these characters, with their IKEA furniture and generous job benefits, were merely spoiled. 

Yes, work conditions and wage stagnancy are much worse than they were in 1999, when the black comedy, directed by King of the Hill creator Mike Judge, famously bombed in theaters (thanks in part to 20th Century Fox’s lackluster marketing campaign). But I’ve worked in many, many cubicles as a temp, performing low-level versions of Peter’s software engineer job solving Y2K bugs. Office Space was based on Judge’s frustrations working in Silicon Valley, and he absolutely nails the alienation and random, petty grievances (so many repetitive phone calls) of any corporate office environment. It’s also not like the characters are in secure, cushy jobs either. The plot partly kicks off when fictional company Initech’s callous management, including the loathsome boss Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole), hire consultants “The Bobs” to determine which employees are expendable. The casual indifference of these corporate upper echelon minions will feel eerily familiar to anyone experiencing the recent tech layoffs.

Peter, ironically, is probably the one Initech employee who wouldn’t mind getting fired. Early on he tells his girlfriend’s therapist that “Every day you see me, I’m having the worst day of my life,” and he gives a desperate, thousand-yard stare when his bosses ask about the infamous TPS reports. Fox executives were apparently baffled by Ron Livingston’s performance in the dailies, telling him to give it “more energy” when that’s the point. They only saw the early scenes when Peter is actively miserable and exhausted. However, when the therapist hypnotizes him into believing he’s out fishing, then dies midway through the session, the character undergoes a total transformation. Livingston doesn’t have to wear any prosthetics or make-up to get across Peter’s new serenity and confidence. The ease with which he blows off Lumbergh’s passive aggressive crap and asks out waitress Joanna (Jennifer Aniston) is one of the funniest things in an already extremely funny movie.

What made Mike Judge’s flop a cult classic—and later a hit, at least, on DVD and Comedy Central—wasn’t merely the copier destruction, the red Swingline stapler, or the dialogue that respawned itself in every real-life cubicle and suburban backyard. Office Space truly articulated how it feels to work at a job you hate for people who regularly dehumanize and mistreat you. The film didn’t pass the Bechdel Test, yet Joanna has more agency than 90% of comedy love interests when she confronts her boss over “expressing herself” by wearing more flair than the bare minimum. Judge recognized better than many contemporary intellectuals how American capitalism especially demands forced collective enthusiasm about our labor, when we sometimes don’t have much real choice in what we do to survive. How many times have I used a version of the “It’s a problem of motivation” speech when explaining wage-labor to my boomer relatives? (At least three or four.)          

Office Space is more of a time capsule 25 years later thanks to the little things: the hip-hop heavy soundtrack, the ‘90s fashions, Jennifer Aniston’s casting as Joanna. Chain restaurants aren’t as popular anymore, which is evidently my generation’s fault. Certain jokes don’t hold up to the scrutiny of changed social norms, especially Samir’s accented English, and the Michael Bolton jokes were made years before the musician became a winking self-parody thanks to The Lonely Island. Judge has also acknowledged since that the third act, with Peter and his friends attempting to steal from Initech, was weak and should’ve been rewritten. (The romantic misunderstandings especially feel predictable.)

Still, even that portion of the movie has a game Orlando Jones making the most of his five-minute scene as a former engineer turned stilted magazine salesman. Office Space doesn’t just hold up because of the outstanding character actor performances (including Diedrich Bader as Lawrence and Stephen Root as hapless secondary protagonist Milton), hyper-specific dialogue, and grimy visuals. The comedy recognizes the mind-numbing dullness of a bullshit job—and how this can make you whiny and unhappy—while letting the characters reach a strong emotional resolution. Peter at last finds work that’s meaningful, takes him outside the cubicle, and stimulates him. Milton, in contrast, will never be happy no matter where he is in life. It’s an ending that fits perfectly into Judge’s pop culture oeuvre of measured, pragmatic morality: The world is messed up and awful, but you don’t have to join in.       

C.M. Crockford is a Philly-based neurodivergent writer with poems, articles, stories published in various outlets. You can find him on Twitter and find his other work at cmcrockford.com. His book Birdsongs is out on March 2nd, 2024 via Alien Buddha Press.

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