Office Space really hit the target perfectly…this really could be anywhere, America. It is in every way a classic comedy.
MIKE JUDGE ON THE LASTING IMPACT OF OFFICE SPACE
If there’s one experience that most everyone can relate to, it is being stuck in a soul-crushing 9 to 5 job and having to deal with all of the grievances that would entail, from obnoxious, annoying coworkers to condescending, smug bosses. Someone who understood these struggles was writer/director Mike Judge in his 1999 cult classic comedy Office Space.
The film is loosely based on Judge’s animated “Milton” shorts whose primary characters are the titular Milton, an awkward mush-mouthed office drone, and his slimy, sarcastic boss Bill Lumbergh, which were in turn loosely based on Judge’s own past work experiences. In adapting this concept into a feature, Judge was perceptive enough to understand that while cute and charming as five minute animated shorts, the Milton and Lumbergh dynamic would not be enough to sustain a feature-length film and instead took this opportunity to tell another relatable comedic story about the modern workplace.
Office Space follows office tech worker Peter Gibbons (played by Ron Livingston) who works a thankless, unfulfilling cubicle job at the tech corporation known as Initech. After growing increasingly frustrated and unsatisfied with his job, he along with the help of his two co-worker friends, Samir and Michael (Ajay Naidu and David Herman) arrange a plan to get revenge over the company that has mistreated and beaten them down over the years. Featuring a slew of standout secondary performances most notably Joanna (played by Jennifer Aniston), a waitress in a similar situation at the local diner – Office Space found comedy in the mundane workplace long before the likes of The Office, Workaholics or The IT Crowd established themselves behind similar conceits.
The film firmly introduces us to Peter’s dull and frustrating existence as he makes his morning commute to work in a dead stop traffic jam where his car is being outpaced by an elderly man with a walker. Once he finally does get to work, things don’t seem to be moving any quicker as he is subjected to having to listen to his droning obnoxious coworkers in the neighboring cubicles and have his smug, condescending boss, Bill Lumbergh (played so deliciously scummy by Gary Cole) lecture him about memos and T.P.S. reports. This introduction to Peter’s work life perfectly encompasses what an average day is like in the life of Peter Gibbons, and a majority of the working class population in all honesty.
For a wide release mainstream comedy, the film is a surprisingly truthful, accurate depiction of the dissatisfaction and mundanity that comes with having such a stress-inducing, soul-crushing job where you’re treating as nothing but another cog in the machine; an experience that mostly anyone who’s ever had a job, particularly in the corporate workforce, can attest to.
Being set in 1999, the coming of the new millennium had unknowingly imposed new personal anxieties regarding this impending milestone in time for a lot of people. The year 2000 signaled a very literal changing of the times and prompted most people to evaluate their current position in life. “What if we’re still doing this when we’re 50”, Peter pessimistically asks his friends. Considering the time and energy that they’ve each put into this company for years and receiving little to nothing for their efforts as disposable assets to this major corporation, it reflects the mindset of many adults at the time questioning where their lives were going.
The overall concept behind Office Space of taking this general dissatisfaction with your life and your job that most adults in the workplace have experienced, and using that as the basis for a comedy in which three friends attempt to stick it to “The Man” by exacting petty revenge, which spirals uncontrollably into outright accidental white collar criminal activity is a hilarious satirization of the capitalist workforce.
Though it is fortunate that Office Space ended up gaining recognition down the line becoming an underground cult classic, it’s still a shame that it ended up being as much of a financial bomb in its initial box office run. Not entirely surprising, however, given that the landscape for successful mainstream comedies during the mid to late ’90s consisted mostly of over-the-top slapstick and exaggerated character performances usually played by Jim Carrey or Adam Sandler. It’s somewhat understandable that a comedy with a more understated true-to-life approach with a drier sense of wit and comedic timing might not appeal to those same demographics of humor.
Over time though, there are moments, lines, and scenes from this film that have permeated into everyday culture and conversation. “Case of the Mondays”, pieces of flair, red Swingline staplers, “jump to conclusions” mat, T.P.S. reports, and the infamous printer destroying scene, have all become phrases and moments that have entered into the public lexicon and have been referenced and parodied countless times in the years that followed.
Twenty years after its release there are undeniably certain jokes that don’t hold up very well, including the casual offhanded references to mass workplace shootings and the overall treatment of Milton as a character. However, none of that manages to take away from the overall joy and lighthearted entertainment that Office Space continues to bring us. Tapping into the human experience that many of us relate to, the robots may eventually take our jobs but they can’t take away our spirit.