Office Space is what I call a “mainstream cult classic” like Big Lebowski or Kingpin– these weren’t low budget grindhouse/ exploitation flicks that amassed their “you have to see this thing” reputations over a period of years. These were studio produced “quirky comedies” that more or less “came and went” or outright bombed on their initial theatrical runs, but then they achieved their cult followings comparatively quickly when they came out on video. These were the days of Blockbuster/ Hollywood Video when these gems could be discovered because the store was out of whatever a customer had come to rent so they would wind up checking out this other flick that “looked funny.” Or perhaps it was excitedly suggested by a (usually jaded) staff member that could appreciate a subversive flick amidst a sea of the “same ol’, same ol'” dreck.
The film was able to speak to a time in our culture where it felt like the “common man” was going to be swallowed whole by the Sim City/ “Corporate America” infrastructure; the soulless cubicle offices/ big box store/ “casual dining” chain restaurants etc. It seemed the entire country was being funneled towards this existence at the expense of our greater hopes, dreams and aspirations. And writer/ director Mike Judge proved to be pretty prescient with his biting humor and “take down of Corporate America” because these same institutions all but betrayed and abandoned its workforce come the Great Recession. Perhaps only a bit less predictive was Judge’s follow up film Idiocracy– another “mainstream cult classic” American satire that foretold a possible future where unabashed ignorance and “cult of celebrity” would eventually drive us to literal ruin.
Office Space inspired innumerable quotes/ memes/ GIFs that are still used today when people need to express their frustrations with their 9 to 5. But the film also made some very tangible changes to our society. It would seem its depiction of the oppressive cubicle office environment helped lead to the adoption of more “open workspaces” which now seem to be preferred in business floor plans (though it will be interesting to see how that changes post-pandemic). And my wife told me that she worked at a TGIF restaurant during this time- and those bastards actually had a “15 items of flair on your suspenders” policy (and to really twist the knife they made you buy your own crappy buttons- oh excuse me… “flair”). At any rate- thanks to Office Space people came into TGIF and ripped on these poor workers for “their flair” and eventually the corporate overlords decided it probably wasn’t a great look so they got rid of the requirement. See that folks… let it never be said that cinema can’t create change for the better.
It had been awhile since I’d seen Office Space and it held up pretty well in my estimation- I certainly laughed a lot and it was interesting to see how many of the characters/ scenes/ lines had become iconic and almost part of our everyday vernacular. Plus, I still absolutely love the perfect “90s gangsta rap” needle drops from the likes of Scarface and the Geto Boys.
The movie was never really a rewatchable for me- maybe because it so permeated our lexicon with the quotes/ references that checking it out repeatedly wasn’t really necessary. And perhaps because the humor “hurts” by being so targeted that it becomes depressing if you think about it too much (I find this especially true with Judge’s follow up and “spiritual cousin” Idiocracy). I also never really found the Milton “my stapler” character very funny. I know I’m probably in the minority on that one because Milton was the “mascot” that people seemed to respond to/ take away from the film. And I do appreciate that Milton “wins” at the end but for the most part the humor seems to be “punching down” at a guy that’s on the spectrum and it will always been my least favorite part of the film.
Speaking of not aging well- Office Space is one of a number of movies from 1999 that deal with the theme of the “forgotten man”- other such examples from that year being Matrix– Fight Club– Being John Malkovich– and American Beauty. And when we say the “forgotten man” we specifically mean the “disaffected white male” who was finding their life lacking in purpose and fulfillment, thus the lead characters “take the red bill” and achieve a spiritual awakening by rejecting the path that has been pre ordained for them. On one hand, as our current days and times show, these films of ’99 were obviously speaking to a very real undercurrent within a certain segment of society that was floundering and hurting. And now tragically some of these people have found a “greater meaning” in their lives by buying into toxic beliefs and lies that “made them feel better” or “in power”. The flip side of that coin is that while the “white male” has sucked up all the oxygen over the years- other races/ sexes have also been put to the wayside and have felt their own often more pronounced struggles in fulfillment- financial security- and justice. Therefore these films of ’99 with their focus on the plight of some “privileged white guys” feel dated and miss the mark for not addressing what the true problem might have been the whole time… self absorbed grievance. In other words, maybe we should try getting out of our heads and listen to each other more. Easier said than done obviously.
So that about does it for this column, Office Space had come out on February 19, 1999 along with two other films- Jawbreaker and October Sky– which are about as different as night and day but I’m going to watch and review them both anyway.