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No. 38: “Office Space” (1999)

“Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about about mission statements.” ~~Peter Gibbons

The phrase “going postal” has been around since the 1980s, but it took “Office Space” to show everyone what those words meant. Just 10 minutes spent in the bleak 9-to-5 wasteland of Initech, jammed with babbling bosses and zombies posing as functional humans, is enough to make any loaded gun look mighty friendly. The hopelessness is clear, but it takes an artist like Mike Judge, with his eye for minutiae, to spin despair into a comic yarn about one man’s rage against the machine.

Indeed, in some important ways, worker bee Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) has the makings of a quintessential rebel, an emblem of La Résistance. He’s the unwitting Cool Hand Luke of cubicle culture. And much like Luke Jackson, Peter Gibbons doesn’t believe he serves any grand purpose. He wants to be the boss of his life and realize his ultimate dream: doing nothing. But instead of Luke’s prison camp, Peter is trapped in his cube at Initech, a software company. He updates bank software for the Y2K switch — in theory. In reality he would accomplish much more if he wasn’t spacing out as his desk (“but it looks like I’m working”), avoiding his droning, evil boss Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole, who deserved an Oscar) or getting hassled by other bosses (“It’s just we’re putting new coversheets on all the TPS reports before they go out now”). While Peter rants to his coworkers Samir (Ajay Naidu) and Michael “No, I’m Not Related to That No-Talent Ass-Clown” Bolton (David Herman) and fantasizes about Joanna (Jennifer Aniston), a bored waitress at Chotchkie’s, he never finds the courage to mutiny. Samir, Michael and fellow drone Milton (Stephen Root), fuming about his stolen red Swingline stapler*, don’t either.

Enter deus ex machina in the form of a hypnotherapist (Michael McShane), who puts Peter under and has a heart attack before he can bring him out. Do-Nothing Peter is born, and what a happy soul he is. Judge has quite a bit of fun with New Peter, who starts dating Joanna; guts the catch on those TPS report covers; spends his working hours playing Tetris; and unscrews his cubicle wall so he can get a window seat. Peter’s complete disinterest catches the attention of “efficiency experts” Bob (John C. McGinley) and Bob (Paul Willson). To them, Peter is a “straight shooter with upper middle management written all over him.” It makes perfect sense because it makes no sense.

Peter and The Bobs are just a sampling of the characters that make “Office Space” so incredibly entertaining (the satire sneaks up on you later). “Office Space” is a collective of kooks and corporate fiends. Near the top is Tom (Richard Riehle), a nutter who thinks his Jump to Conclusions mat** will make him rich. There’s Drew (Greg Pitts), able to take the ladies for sweet rides on the bone rollercoaster. Cole, as Bill Lumbergh, is deadpan villainy at its best, starting every line with a lumbering (ha!) “Yeeeeaaaahhhh.” Naidu and Herman play the straight men, but they play them with enough edge — Samir’s misuse of American swear words is side-splitting, while Michael spits fire when people mention “When A Man Loves a Woman” — to make them outstanding. Last is odd little Milton, whose glasses give him big round lemur eyes. He vows to set Initech on fire. Trifle with the quiet ones at your own risk.

In the character interactions Judge buries the humor (much of it dry) that pegs “Office Space” as a fiendishly clever satire. When the Bobs discover Milton was laid off but still receives a paycheck, they “fix the glitch” by taking away the check. Bill subjects the lower-level employees to his every whim, which includes moving Milton’s desk to Storage Room B. Most damning of all is Peter’s assessment of the flair Joanna’s boss forces her to don: “You know, the Nazis had pieces of flair they made the Jews wear.” Mike Judge, he doesn’t miss when he goes for the jugular.

*I own this.
**This too.

Review: “Set It Off” (1996)

“We need something to set it off with.”
~~Cleo Sims

Not too long ago, a friend who’s been searching fruitlessly for a job had something to say about his troubles: “Class, man. Can’t escape it.” What a whallop five words can have. Back in 1996, the word “recession” wasn’t terribly high on anyone’s list of worries. But class? High, middle or low, class tends to stick around … unless you make it go away. F. Gary Gray’s “Set It Off” is a vivid illustration of this cruel truth. The story of four friends struggling to pull themselves out of the L.A. projects, “Set It Off” is an intense, heartbreaking examination of how class restrictions drive people to drastic action.

Scriptwriter Takashi Bufford — who hammers a bit hard on the heroes/villains angle — provides background about these women, a rarity in most bank heist films since they tend to focus on the action. “Set It Off” has plenty of action and violence, including several tense standoffs and shootouts, but the film is deeper than that. Stony Newsom (Jada Pinkett Smith), Cleo Sims (Queen Latifah), Frankie Sutton (Vivica A. Fox) and T.T. Williams (Kimberly Elise) grew up in the same neighborhood and now face the same problems: not enough money, jobs or respect and too many obstacles. Frankie had a job at a local bank that she lost after reacting improperly to a hold-up. Cleo’s sick of working for her crude boss (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) and living in a garage. In a horrendous misunderstanding, Stony’s innocent brother (Chaz Lamar Shepherd) is gunned down outside his apartment by LAPD Detective Strode (John C. McGinley). T.T., unable to afford sitters, takes her toddler son along on a house cleaning job and he accidentally swallows household cleaner. When Child Services takes him, it rips her in half. To this point, “Set It Off” plays like a study of breaking points. At the bottom, each woman finds hers.

And so the group starts to take Cleo’s idea to rob a bank seriously. This idea even looks to be a smart one, since Frankie has the intel and Cleo has the guts and the weapons hookup. Rushed and unplanned as their first heist is, they succeed. Then “Set It Off” abruptly transitions from a layered character study into a bloody action film that follows few conventions except the truest ones: success makes the robbers reckless; outsiders get involved and people get hurt; the cops are watching (McGinley strikes a nice balance between obstinance and humanity) even though the women don’t realize it. Heists have this tendency to unspool when cool is lost and desperation takes over. Given these women’s economic circumstances, though, is there any way to keep desperation out of the equation?

Perhaps not, but “Set It Off” stumbles upon a few ways to make an old story feel new and resonant and exhilarating. The script includes some very honest conversations among these four women about their economic realities and why the risk might be worthwhile. Stony doesn’t believe in stealing, but Cleo (this is considered Latifah’s breakout role for good reason) has a franker take. The way she sees it, they’re just taking back what they system has taken from them. She’s not wrong. There is a conviviality among Frankie, Stony, Cleo and T.T. that feels true; gone is the fake, B.S. Hollywood formality. Watch for a brief scene where the women play “Godfather” to discuss their robbery plans. It’s excellent comic relief; more than that, it speaks to how deep their connection runs. Each actress gives a fine performance, but Pinkett Smith and Latifah are marvelous. Pinkett Smith shows us how the raw pain of loss changes people, and Latifah lights up every scene with Cleo’s intensity. She’s on fire.

Certain failings threaten to hamper this refreshing friendship. Gray’s direction in the action scenes is subtle as an Uzi; he tries to make these women into unstoppable action heroes, not the human beings we’ve empathized with. There’s also a romance (Blair Underwood plays Stony’s well-to-do suitor) that is completely useless. Both are mistakes, but they aren’t unforgivable ones, mainly because “Set It Off” is one of the best movies about class division and female friendships made in a long, long time.

Grade: B+