Stuck in the Middle Class With You

Is Office Space a cure for a case of the Mondays?

On the face of it, Office Space doesn't seem like the kind of picture likely to inspire a Rocky Horror-like cult following. Most cult movies appeal to misfits: your stoners, your art geeks, your sweet transvestites, etc. They are skewed, weird movies for skewed, weird people. Office Space is a different breed, a mainstream studio comedy with a cast of familiar TV faces. The film was a rare excursion into live action for Mike Judge, the creator of such cartoons as Beavis and Butthead and King of the Hill, and when first released, it met with middling reviews and somewhat-less-than-middling box office. Once it ended its brief multiplex run, one might have expected the film to join the ranks of Johnny Dangerously and Bio Dome, failed comedies that go unrented for so long their box art eventually fades to a sickly yellow on those sun-drenched Blockbuster shelves.

But it turns out there was an audience who found Office Space on video, and they adore it with a passion that sometimes makes the Rocky Horror fans look anemic. Office Space geeks know all the film's lines, they gather in little geek cliques for viewing parties, they keep websites tracking just how many times the red Swingline stapler appears in the film (no fooling: see virtualstapler.com/office_space). They don't show up for screenings dressed like the film's characters—or if they do, nobody can tell—but they are a pencil-pushing, Tetris-playing, counting-the-minutes-until-5-p.m. cult just the same.

Office Space is a deceptively mild-mannered satire, the kind of picture you enjoy well enough while watching but find yourself thinking about over weeks or even months later. It expresses the quiet desperation of the average cubicle dweller and asks the questions so many of us try not to ask ourselves in our workday lives if we want to make it to Friday without burning down the building. What the hell am I doing with my life, staring at this computer screen all day? How did I end up working for these assholes? And who took my damn red Swingline stapler?

Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) has a crappy job and a bitchy girlfriend, but he can't imagine a better life for himself. The next job will surely be just as crappy, the next girlfriend just as bitchy. He has only to look around the office to see nightmare versions of what he could become, like Tom, a 50-year-old schlub who still dreams of escaping by coming up with an idea as great as the Pet Rock, or poor ol' Milton (a superbly creepy/pitiful Stephen Root), so beaten down by the unthinking tyrannies of his bosses he sits in his cube muttering endlessly about the awful vengeance that will one day be his. It appears Peter is on a grim path to a hopefully early grave, but then a hypnotherapy session goes wrong and suddenly Peter is stripped of his inhibitions and no longer gives two poops about the crappy job or the bitchy girlfriend. In no time, he has ditched the bitchy girlfriend; taken up with a quirky waitress (Jennifer Anniston, fetching even in a frumpy TGI Friday's-esque ensemble); and with his pals Michael Bolton (no, not that one) and Samir hatched an ambitious, anti-corporate plot that could just land them in "federal, pound-me-in-the-ass" prison.

I could listen to Milt mutter all day ("and I used to be over by the window, and I could see the squirrels, and they were merry . . ."), but otherwise there aren't a lot of gut-busters here. What there is is an unblinking look at the terror and tedium of modern working life, the frustrations petty and profound, the endless memos and TPS cover sheets and reporting to bosses who report to other bosses. The average workplace sitcom never touches on the soul-twisting hatred a constantly malfunctioning piece of office equipment can produce, and even the best of such shows typically perpetuate the fiction that our bosses are our friends. The film's resolution (spoilers ahoy!) suggests that our blue-state neuroses would be cured if we would simply embrace some of those good, old, red-state values; get our hands dirty; and do some real man's work—it's a moral Judge has hit us with many times on King of the Hill, and if anything, it's even less persuasive here. In real life, Peter would probably be sick to death of that construction job and his beer-swilling, mulleted co-workers within a couple of weeks. He'd come home every day with an aching back and lungs full of drywall, and soon his old cubicle would start looking pretty damn good. So he'd quit and get another meaningless office job, and within days, he'd be miserable again. Eventually, given the current, wretched economy, he'd probably get laid off (there's some of those red-state values for you) and spend a few months in his parents' basement, futilely sending out résumés when he wasn't drinking himself into a stupor. If there's a happy ending to this story, it comes when America elects a more responsible, progressive government and we all get serious about figuring out how to keep our citizens both meaningfully and happily occupied. But of course this movie is satire, not science fiction.

Rocky Horror, for all its faults and the peculiarly conformist cult that's sprung up around it, sends its audience back into the night with the inspiring exhortation "Don't dream it; be it." The Office Space geeks, bless their hearts, aren't even sure what better life they should be dreaming of. . . . They just know they're stuck in a system that doesn't work and they're not happy. Office Space offers no real answers, but it reminds its fans they aren't alone. There are millions of other miserable misfits out there, crammed into cubicles from sea to shining sea.
 
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