The Metropolitan #25: Office Space Revisited
Does the 1999 workspace comedy give us a case of the Mondays?
Revisiting the films that thrilled you as a youth can be a bittersweet experience. What horrifying things will they reveal about the teenager you once were, to the teenager on your sofa? Forewarned is forearmed…
Can we show the kids?
Office Space (1999)
Peter Gibbons is so depressed by his pointless beige job in a pointless beige office that he sees a hypnotist, who keels over from a heart attack halfway through putting him under. The suddenly relaxed Peter finds himself with a new girlfriend, a new promotion and new plan for wreaking his revenge on his pointless beige boss. And then there’s Milton the muttering office misfit, who might just burn the building down if someone takes his stapler.
Office Space is very ’90s indeed. It’s set in 1999, in a tech firm preparing for Y2K (it even features an actual explanation of the Millennium Bug). This isn’t a post-industrial urban loft full of kombucha-fueled hustling start-up types; it’s an anonymous business park in an anonymous suburb where the management are more concerned about the cover pages on the TPS reports than they are about their burn-rate.
Can we show the kids?
If you ever need to explain what happened to Generation X when it (finally) went to work, this is a good place to start. Office Space shows a world in which even computer engineers don’t have mobile phones, people watch terrestrial TV, theme restaurants are enough of a novelty to be a joke, and cattle pen cubicles are hate-objects because we didn’t know how awful open-space offices would turn out to be without them. A time when a secure job was a dreary curse, not a ridiculous pipe dream.
When Peter’s soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend takes him to see soon-to-be-ex-hypnotherapist Mike McShane, the first thing he asks him to do is to hypnotise him so that he can forget about work entirely. He wants to go to the office and do his job, just not remember it. This is the entire set-up of Apple’s present-day hit show Severance, in which characters have brain surgery that divides their work and life experiences between entirely separate selves. A goofy Generation X joke has become a millennial nightmare.
The discomforts of Office Space are quintessentially ’90s. It has only one major female character; pretty much every other speaking role is played by a male actor. It has only one major character of colour; pretty much every other actor is white. In fairness, both of those characters end up being quite well developed while most of the white men surrounding them are depicted as being unremittingly awful.
Stephen Root’s Milton is a comic masterpiece, though the visual emphasis on his poor personal hygiene now feels like a gratuitously basic smear of non-neurotypical behaviours.
So, here’s the question. Why didn’t Ron Livingstone become a bigger star after Office Space and Band of Brothers? He’s all easy charm, with a pleasing, big wonky face, a lopsided grin and expressive eyebrows. He’s absolutely terrific in this. But pretty much everyone is terrific in this. At first it feels like Jennifer Aniston’s character is going to be a one-note manic-pixie dreamgirl, but they know they have a brilliant comic actor on their hands and give her much more to do. Gary Cole is perfectly appalling as Peter’s awful boss Lundberg, and, let’s say it again, Stephen Root’s Milton is hilarious.
And there’s that scene. As a present to his friends, Peter steals the recalcitrant office printer and takes it out to a field with them and a baseball bat. The resulting destruction is a wish-fulfilment dream for anyone who’s ever had to deal with a paper jam.
“Looks like someone’s got a case of the Mondays”
“I could burn the building down”
“The ratio of people to cake is too big”
Is it as good as you remember?
Office Space is indeed very ’90s. Appropriately enough for the quotation generation, a major plot point is ripped from another movie: Peter and his friends are not only stealing money from their employer, they’re stealing Richard Pryor’s scam from Superman III. (The characters comment on this repeatedly, pleased to have got the reference.) And they’re doing it by transferring a virus on a 3.5” disk. Because no one, but no one, mentions the internet. What bliss it was in that dawn to be alive.
Peter Gibbons is the quintessential slacker, whiling away his twenties in a dead-end job with no guiding ambitions or hopes. His great psychological breakthrough comes when he is able to not care that he’s failing. His escape at the end of the film lies not in wealth or success but in physical labour, working on a building site, a job he can easily not care about; something that he can cheerfully leave behind at the end of the day with his sanity - and soul - intact. (Everyone is very envious of one character who experiences life-changing injuries in an accident: insurance payout and he never has to work again, the lucky guy). Gibbons is, in many ways, the poster child for Generation X.
For those of us who also spent our twenties trapped in grey felt cubicles with self-appointed office clowns, typing gnomic numbers into phosphor-screen forms, Office Space is a perfect encapsulation not just of office life, but of the whole pointless, beige experience.
At the end of the film, nothing has changed. I mean, yes, Peter is working on a building site and Milton has made good on his promise of burning down the office, but no one has escaped (except Milton); everyone else is back in virtually identical pointless jobs, in virtually identical pointless business parks.
The point, it appears, is that late-twentieth century life is pointless and beige and there’s nothing you can do to make it consequential or colourful. Even self-expression is regulated; the number of ‘flair’ badges Jennifer Aniston’s character has to wear on her waitress uniform is carefully monitored to make sure she is being herself to an appropriate level. All we can hope for, apparently, is to stay under the radar, out of the notice of management consultants, and try not to care. At the time, this seemed darkly funny; looking back from a gig-economy, social-media-soaked twenty-first century, it seems positively idyllic.
And it’s still very funny.
More from The Metropolitan on the perils and pains of first jobs in the 1990s:
Next week: We swap universes, identities and decades with Doctor Who