Looking back at Office Space

Mike Judge's Office Space may have failed to make much of a dent at the box office. But it's endured as one of the best comedies of recent times. And, has Gary Cole ever been better?

2001 was a golden year for British comedy, introducing the world to the sardonic wit of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, and their magnum opus, The Office. Heralded by critics the world over, and garlanded with enough awards to sink a cruise liner, the show was rightly praised for its acutely observed, often scathing portrayal of office life.

The pompous, self-absorbed management, the irrational irritation caused by your workmate’s mildly annoying ticks and habits, the general apathy of the underpaid, overworked office workforce, nothing was missed by the Gervais and Merchant microscope of mirth. The duo has received endless praise ever since for shining a spotlight on the horrors of the workplace, but they were far from the first to boldly enter such territory.

1999’s Office Space was Beavis And Butthead mastermind Mike Judge’s second feature film, and his first step into the world of live-action directing. The film initially follows a typical working day in the life of Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston), a computer programmer for software company Initech, and Office Space‘s equivalent of Tim from The Office.

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Like Tim, Peter hates his boss, finds his job utterly demeaning, and would rather be anywhere else than trapped in his cubicle. His friends and co-workers, Samir (Ajay Naidu) and Michael Bolton (David Herman), no, not that one, share Peter’s loathing, and are all persistently humiliated and tormented by sleazy company president Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole).

Peter’s girlfriend Anne insists he attend occupational hypnotherapy sessions to break him out of his depression, and to help save their disastrous relationship. However, when the hypnotherapist dies mid-session, Peter is left in a constant state of numb euphoria.

Without a care in the world, Peter ignores his cheating girlfriend’s constant calls, loses all interest in his work, and finally asks flair festooned waitress, Joanna (Jennifer Aniston), on a date. Peter’s untroubled state culminates in a complex scheme to slowly embezzle Initech out of thousands of dollars, with the help of Samir and Michael. However, when everything inevitably falls apart, Peter’s perfect life quickly crumbles.

Office Space‘s cast is uniformly perfect. Ron Livingston is excellent as the permanently dazed Peter, literally sleepwalking his way through life as everything comes crashing down around him. Despite being unrelentingly self obsessed, his enforced carefree manner is genuinely appealing.

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Gary Cole, on the other hand, is slimy, creepy, and utterly lacking in charm as boss, Bill Lumbergh. Essentially the anti David Brent, Bill has no concerns for his staff or their feelings, so long as they get the job done.

Most surprising is Jennifer Anniston in her only enjoyable screen performance thus far (well, apart from The Iron Giant,  and maybe Leprechauns). Although Joanna is simply a slightly more irritable Rachel from Friends, she is the perfect foil to Peter’s unnerving optimism, and her uninhibited rage against her boss’ obsession with ‘flair’ is a highlight.

However, the film’s most enduring and loveable character is Stephen Root’s socially awkward Milton. Originally featured in a series of animated shorts for Saturday Night Live and MTV, Milton’s neurotic and borderline OCD tendencies were a perfect fit for the Office Space world. Constantly put upon by Bill, Milton’s silent suffering as his office equipment is stolen and his cubicle is downgraded to a desk in the basement, is as heartbreaking as it is hilarious.

Although critically acclaimed, Office Space was not as big a commercial hit as it deserved to be. Despite this, the film’s release couldn’t have been timed more perfectly.

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Office Space was released just as DVD technology was becoming increasingly prevalent. People who discovered the film were able to share the experience with their friends, thus creating one of the first truly cult classics of the DVD era, also helped by the film’s seemingly endless broadcasts on US comedy networks.

Office Space has since taken on a life of its own. Highlights from the film have been referenced in all kinds of media, from World Of Warcraft commercials to Family Guy parodies.

In many ways, Office Space serves as the perfect follow-up to Mike Judge’s slacker masterpiece Beavis And Butthead. A heady mix of the surreal and the understated, Beavis And Butthead accurately reflected the growing apathy and narcissism of its Gen X audience, who would much rather sit on the couch all day mocking Pavement videos than entertain any real life concerns.

Office Space picks up where Beavis And Butthead left off, following those same Gen X-ers as they try to make their way in the world of work. They may adopt a professional exterior, but they have yet to lose their sense of entitlement and lack of motivation.

However, whereas Beavis And Butthead openly mocked its audience rather than addressing any of their concerns, and was widely adored for it, Office Space at least attempts to find an alternative to the nine to five grind (even if those alternatives do involve large-scale arson).

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Music plays an integral part to both Mike Judge creations. Both use music as a means for the characters to escape the tedium of their situations, and to channel their hostility. Office Space‘s soundtrack of early-90s hip hop classics is a fantastic companion to the film’s mundane scenarios, perhaps best witnessed in the film’s most iconic scene in which Peter, Samir and Michael go medieval on the office printer’s ass to the laidback, silky tones of Geto Boy’s Damn It Feels Good To Be A Gangsta.

Whether directly or indirectly, Office Space‘s influence can be found throughout the comedy landscape, from the deadpan fantasy of Napoleon Dynamite, to the sharply observed minutiae of both the US and UK variations of the aforementioned The Office.

With an array of quotable lines and well rounded characters, Office Space deserves to take its place amongst Holy Grail and Airplane! as a cult comedy classic.

See more of our Looking Back articles here.

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