The movie: “Office Space”; dir. by Mike Judge; starring Ron Livingston, David Herman, Ajay Naidu, Gary Cole, Jennifer Aniston
The moment: Yesterday I went to another office’s going-away party for an employee I freely admit I met once (in my defense, I was very charming and unforgettable that day). There was cake, there was passing of cake and when it got down to the last two people guess who walked away with no sugary baked goods in her stomach?
The correlation: The ratio of people to cake was too big, too big.
(Thanks to Marshall and the Movies for reminding me it’s been eons since my last RLMM.)
“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.
Filed under: Reviews, Top 100 Reviews | Tagged: Ajay Naidu, David Herman, Diedrich Bader, Gary Cole, Jennifer Aniston, Joe Bays, John C. McGinley, Michael McShane, Mike Judge, Office Space, Paul Willson, Richard Riehle, Ron Livingston, Stephen Root | 13 Comments »
“Welcome to Costco. I love you.”
~~ Costco greeter
Films about the future have a tendency to push certain rather optimistic ideas: technological advancement; heightened intelligence; evolution. Even those with less-than-positive views of time forthcoming, like “A Clockwork Orange,” depict humans as creatures still capable of higher-order thinking skills. They are capable of affecting technological change. In so many futuristic movies, progress is assumed.
You know what Mike Judge thinks about directors and moviegoers who make assumptions? Rearrange the order of “ass” and “u” in and you’ll have a clearer picture. Or just watch “Idiocracy,” Judge’s hilarious, barbed satire masquerading as a crude, rude, doorknob-dumb comedy. Judge, see, he does not pity the fool who harbors bright dreams and aspirations for the future of mankind. His future contains no advancement or progress. His future contains a movie called “Ass,” an Oscar darling (it won Best Screenplay) that spends 90 minutes with the camera trained on naked buttocks. And let’s not forget The Violence Channel’s most popular show, “Ow My Balls!”
Don’t be misled by gags like this, or the hoards of idiots and the idiotic things they say (example: “Why come you got no tattoo?”); satires don’t come much sharper than “Idiocracy.” Judge’s true genius lies in the fact that he can make movies that look dumb and inconsequential but carry the unmistakable sting of truth. (Think back to Johnny Knoxville’s “Jackass.” Did you watch it? Did you laugh? Are you getting that sick feeling in the pit of your stomach yet?) The “Office Space” creator is blithely unafraid to show the future as he sees it: a tragic dumbing-down of mankind. Joe (Luke Wilson), a military man, becomes his mouthpiece. Average in every way, Joe volunteers, along with prostitute Rita (Maya Rudolph), for a secret government hibernation project. I’m sure you know it goes wrong. Joe and Rita wake up 500 years in the future, in 2505, and discover something is missing from the world, something called “all the smart people.” How did this happen? The narrator (Earl Mann, cheeky little devil) anticipated this question and has an answer ready: “Evolution does not necessarily reward intelligence. With no natural predators to thin the herd, it began to simply reward those who reproduced the most, and left the intelligent to become an endangered species.”
The wall-to-wall hilarity in “Idiocracy” develops as Joe and Rita discover that they are part not of an endangered species but an extinct species. Only Mike Judge could dream up a world like this one, where the U.S. president (Terry Crews) begins his presidential addresses with one word (“shiiiiiiiiiit”); holds a contest to elect the Secretary of Energy and thinks the 12-year-old winner (Brendan Hill) is a safe bet; has a Secretary of Treasury (Sara Rue) everyone calls “Fun Bags”; and sees no problem watering crops nationwide with an energy drink — Brawndo, which actually exists — because “it’s got what plants crave: electrolytes.” Joe and Rita, two Einsteins in a world of Forrest Gumps, find a totally inept guide in Frito (Dax Shepard), who went to law school at Costco (only because his father, an alum, pulled strings). Joe’s brain catches the eye of the president, and soon he’s embroiled in a race to save himself from certain death in a prison smackdown by solving the whole country’s problems.
“Idiocracy” is such a comic gem that it’s difficult to know where the fun starts and ends. The endless parade of moronical characters is a joy to behold, with Shepard proving again his ability to play dumb is second only to Lisa Kudrow’s. Crews and his “cabinet” (including David “Michael Bolton” Herman) have a ball waxing dumb, and their spirit is catching. Running gags like the one about Brawndo — it’s got what (fill in the blank) crave — don’t get old because they’re so blatantly on point. Most crucial to the looniness is Luke Wilson as Joe, the quintessential no-frills Everyman. His shock and disgust at this world of Starbucks handjobs and Brawndo drinking fountains is muted enough to draw big laughs. And dread. For when the laughing stops, “Idiocracy” leaves us with a sense that not only is this future inevitable, it might be here already. Brought to you by Carl’s Jr., no doubt.
In another life, Mike Judge must have been a reporter. Every one of his movies has an angle designed to sway our sympathies in the exact direction he wants. In “Office Space,” we felt for put-upon cubicle drone Peter Gibbons, with his eight nagging bosses. With “Idiocracy,” it was Joe and Rita, average people submerged in a sea of grunting buffoons, who won our hearts (sort of). How, we wondered, would we react to a world where Starbucks sells handjobs, not venti chai lattes?
Judge’s latest comedy, the warmer, gentler “Extract,” spurs us to feel sympathy for Joel (Jason Bateman), who built his flavor extract company from the ground up and believes in treating his employees with kindness. He’s the kind of boss who knows not only his employees’ names but what their purses look like. He cares enough to pay attention when other people don’t.
In this case, those “other people” are Suzie (Kristen Wiig), Joel’s bored wife who uses sweatpants to fend off his increasingly desperate sexual advances; Brian (J.K. Simmons), Joel’s sarcastic second-in-command who calls everyone “Dinkus”; and Nathan (David Koechner), Joel’s Bob Wiley-styled neighbor who materializes daily at his car window like the pop-up book from hell. The only people who seem halfway interested in Joel are Dean (a nicely low-key Ben Affleck), an old bartender buddy who pops Xanax for head colds, and Cindy (Mila Kunis), a flirty temp a little too interested in extract to be totally genuine.
Since this is a Mike Judge movie, there are elements of the fantastic — in the form of crazy twists and ideas — lurking in all this banality, little schemes that Everyman uses to distract himself from the disappointment that fills his life. (These are Judge trademarks. Learn to love them.) Cindy’s “job” at the factory is a direct result of a freak accident that leaves Shep (the ever-subtle Clifton Collins Jr.) minus one testicle. A dumb-as-a-stump gigolo (Dustin Milligan) becomes part of a trap to entice Suzie to cheat. And there’s a bohemoth bong and a horse tranquilizer thrown in for good measure.
All this tomfoolery, however, doesn’t disguise the flaws inherent in Judge’s design. The endless plots start piling up on each other and strain the bounds of credibility. (Viewers can suspend disbelief only so far, really.) After awhile, they start to feel scattered and haphazard and a little too out-there. Maybe the reason for that is that there is no clear villain in “Extract,” no Bill Lumbergh, to focus our distaste on. Instead we’re given people like Brian, whose worst quality is disdain for his underlings, and Cindy, who knows her way around long and short cons but truly likes Joel. Judge seems careful not to demonize anyone, and he makes sure we laugh with, not at, them. Where’s the spirited satire, the biting, savage wit that made Judge a household name?
Still, that’s not to say “Extract” is a complete letdown. Far from it. There’s care in the performances, and the key players are anything but one-sided. Kunis continues to prove that she’s too good an actress for television, giving Cindy a shrewd ability to find and exploit people’s weaknesses as well as a measure of unexpected kindness. That Simmons, he has a way with withering one-liners. He’s become the go-to guy for snark. Affleck continues his recent career upswing, underacting wonderfully in a way we haven’t seen since his “Chasing Amy” days. Collins gives Shep more depth and sad pride than he ought to — what a fine actor, too fine for all these teensy parts.
At the center of all this is Bateman, who couldn’t play mean if his life depended on it. Too vulnerable and empathetic, that one. He’s so earnest a guy it’s impossible not to like him, though he may make you wonder if Judge’s gone all smooshy. I know I did. But then I looked closer, and I realized Judge’s always had a soft spot for the common man. Couldn’t villainize him if he tried. And in that light, “Extract” is the kind of humane, softer-edged comedy this average guy director has been waiting to make.