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White Collar Hell.

By Coury Turczyn

SEPTEMBER 20, 1999:  I have a friend who is employed by a giant government bureaucracy. Every morning when she arrives at work on the 14th floor of the hermetically sealed building, she passes hundreds of empty cubicles (due to generations of "downsizing"), the fluorescent lights blinking on over her head as they sense her presence. At last, back in the corner, she finds the last outpost of humans, a handful of people clinging to sanity as they withstand waves of teambuilding exercises, personality tests, role playing games, and meetings about upcoming meetings. Who in the heck devised this corporate paradigm, and I wonder if he or she ever had to actually live it themselves? Why, it's something right out of a dark comedy...

And so it is in Mike Judge's Office Space (R, 1999), one of those movies that was so underrated on its release that it offers lots of pleasant surprises on video. Judge, the creator of Beavis and Butthead and King of the Hill, has a knack for exposing the lives of people most TV shows or movies ignore. This time he casts his knowing eye on the angst of cubicle drones, those disposable corporate tools who face dehumanizing "management" on a daily basis. Ron Livingston stars as a young Y2K debugger at a giant software company; he realizes his life is going nowhere, but he has no idea how to change it. But when his "occupational hypnotherapist" drops dead in the middle of a session, leaving him in a permanent blissed-out state, he seizes on a whole new philosophy: He just doesn't care about his job. Soon, he lives the dream of every office worker: He comes in when he wants (or not at all), he does what he wants, he wears what he wants. But he doesn't actually quit...in fact, he's soon promoted. Judge's script accurately and often hilariously details the awesome stupidity of "corporate culture," and the personalities caught inside it. For anyone who's had to submerge their soul just to make a living, this movie's for you.

Of course, the office hell isn't a new invention. In Billy Wilder's The Apartment (1960), you can see how previous generations of corporate drones suffered. The great Jack Lemmon stars as a cog with aspirations: He attempts to climb the company ladder by loaning out his apartment to his bosses, who book it for illicit flings. Used and abused by his superiors, Lemmon employs his expert comedic timing and regular guy features to show the frustration of low-level office workers everywhere. Thankfully, he at least gets to fall in love with Shirley MacLaine.

Probably the greatest satire of office bureaucracy is Brazil (R, 1985), which would require more room than this column permits to fully describe; but it's at last available as a Criterion Collection DVD, with all sorts of goodies. So lash back at your corporate overlords and at least watch a few white collar rebellions.


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