Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Office Space

By Marjorie Baumgarten

FEBRUARY 23, 1999: 

D: Mike Judge; with Ron Livingston, Jennifer Aniston, David Herman, Ajay Naidu, Diedrich Bader, Stephen Root, Gary Cole, John C. McGinley, Paul Willson. (R, 89 min.)

A frightening number of people are going to recognize themselves in this movie: white-collar prisoners of the corporate office place -- knowledge workers and computer programmers and paper-shuffling desk jockeys who haven't become victims of downsizing so much as they have become victims of the cubicizing of the American workplace. Office Space is a movie whose battlegrounds will be familiar turf to any modern office worker. It is a land defined by stapler wars and coffee mugs, memos and rumors, grievances about improper usage of such things as cover pages, radio earplugs, time sheets, and office equipment. It is a place where workers peer suspiciously around the edges of their cubicles and where a person's snapping point may be triggered by something as innocuous as a copier machine that unhelpfully displays a paper-jam message when there is no paper jam or when a payroll clerk chirpily declares for the millionth time, "Looks like someone has a case of the Mondays." However, do not fear that writer-director Mike Judge has turned all Marxist, working-class hero on his fans. The characters in Office Space lie somewhere in between the extremes of Judge's other world-famous creations: those quintessential "What, me work!?" goons, Beavis and Butt-head (and let's face it, who among us would want those cartoon clowns to be handing us our burger and fries?), and King of the Hill's propane (and propane accessories) salesman Hank Hill, who is a veritable avatar of the suburban work ethic. Office Space is most definitely a comedy, something like Norma Rae with a college degree and a sense of humor. "It's not all about me and my dream of doing nothing. It's about all of us," Judge's lead character Peter (Livingston) declares. Judge's script for this live-action feature -- his first after establishing his reputation as one of the kings of the new wave of sophisticated, adult animation -- is wickedly funny and to the point. The storyline is something of a hodge-podge but what the narrative lacks in honing and straight-ahead storytelling it more than makes up for with well-aimed barbs and acutely focused observations. Much the same is true for the visual design -- one suspects that the sterile, fluorescent atmosphere of cubed-in wage slaves might have offered unfulfilled opportunities for more sight gags and hellish corporate vistas, but then a scene like the slow-motion copier machine gangbang episode comes along and you realize that it's an image that will become an instant classic. The performances are all sharply drawn examples of picture-perfect understatement. Livingston (Swingers) makes a career breakthrough as the film's Everyman, Herman and Naidu (subUrbia) shine as Peter's co-workers and co-conspirators -- the unfortunately named Michael Bolton and the Near Eastern computer guy, Root is absolutely hilarious as the mumbling office worker Milton (who was the subject of Judge's original animated shorts that inspired the live-action feature), Cole oozes a fecund trail of smarm as the company's unctuous supervisor, and Aniston is delightfully unFriend-like in her downplayed role as Peter's love interest. Although the movie was filmed here in Austin, Office Space strives for, and achieves, a generic Anywhere, USA look. Nevertheless, this funny, funny satire gets us where we live.
3.5 stars


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