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Holy Hell! Office Space Turns 20

Holy Hell! Office Space Turns 20

An absurdity-laced reminder of the catharsis in bucking convention.

In 1999, Hollywood found few things more oppressive than the mundanity of steady employment. In a handful of high-profile films, a sense of entitlement to sit around and do nothing became the new American Dream, and the avenue towards such a life of uninterrupted leisure seemed to stem from extorting gobs of money from dickhead bosses. American Beauty’s Lester Burnham used blackmail and the threat of a fraudulent sexual harassment claim to score a year’s salary as severance. Fight Club’s Narrator managed something similar by beating himself to a pulp in his horrified boss’ office. And Office Space’s Peter (Ron Livingston) used a Y2K-related computer virus to steal from his loathsome corporate employer, Initech, when his newfound ambivalence toward showing up to work curdled into an impulse to rage against the machine.

While other 1999 films took a more metaphysical approach to the escape from office drudgery—The Matrix and Being John Malkovich come to mind—Mike Judge’s Office Space joined American Beauty and Fight Club as films whose protagonists decide to bite the hands that feed them following a transcendent epiphany, depicting the shirking of their responsibilities as an almost mystical experience. In Office Space, that epiphany comes thanks to couples therapy hypnosis gone haywire, as the hypnotherapist (Michael McShane) keels over before he can fully awaken Peter from a soothing trance. As a result, the usually frustrated and angsty Peter remains in a blissed-out state of perpetual chill, sleeping through an overtime work day and not reacting to the numerous pestering answering machine messages from his insufferably patronizing boss, Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole).

Effortlessly giving no fucks is a breath of fresh air to Peter, reinvigorating him to the point of boldly asking out the mutually kung-fu obsessed Chotchkie’s waitress Joanna (Jennifer Aniston), who only wears the minimum required flair on the suspenders of her ugly, striped uniform. While his techie work buddies Samir (Ajay Naidu) and Michael Bolton (David Herman)—the latter of whom refuses to go by “Mike” despite loathing the soft rocker with whom he shares a name—fret about having to defend their jobs in front of two corporate stooges both named Bob (John C. McGinley and Paul Willson), Peter waltzes into his corporate review and candidly details his utter lack of motivation.

Peter’s subsequent disdain for the unfair system that would then promote him and fire his friends quickly overtakes him in the film’s second half, and it’s here that Office Space transcends the glamorization of selfishness that American Beauty holds up as a virtue and Fight Club imbues with ambiguity. As he taps disgruntled Samir and Michael to infect the Initech servers with a virus that would round off fractions of a cent into furtive bank account intended to net the three men enough money so they don’t have to work, Joanna acts as the film’s conscience, pointing out that what they are doing is stealing. As Peter eventually rediscovers his moral compass, Joanna imparts the obvious wisdom that “most people don’t like their jobs.” But we do them anyway, not because we’re cogs in some abominable machine, but because it allows us the financial ability to go out there and find something else that gives us joy.

With this shift in tone, Office Space avoids becoming too preachy by its third act. The film never wholeheartedly gives up on the idea that the system is corrupt and oppressive, and that, in an ideal world, we should burn it all down and go stretch out on the beach, as continually pushed-around Milton (Stephen Root) ultimately does after he’s banished, unpaid and cake-less, to a roach-infested storage closet. Even just a decade after its release, with the Great Recession devastating working- and middle-class Americans in droves, Office Space already seemed quaint, and 20 years later the popular 1999 notion that jobs are for suckers seems even more naïve and misguided in retrospect. But as far as time-capsule pleasures go, Office Space still offers an absurdity-laced reminder of the catharsis in finding the nerve to buck convention, step back, breathe deep and proudly say “fuckin’ A.”

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