A Picture of Petty Tyranny

Office Space is a 1999 film directed by Mike Judge and loosely based on his Milton animated shorts. I previously reviewed Idiocracy and intended to come back and cover this at some stage which I am now doing. Though I love the film, the first time I saw it I didn’t really enjoy it. In hindsight I think that is because I had no frame of reference as I’d never been in full-time work and the work I did do was not in an office environment. As said, it was only on re-watching the film a few years ago — many years after my first viewing — that I really “got it”.

Discussing Idiocracy was unavoidably political but politics really don’t come into Office Space. The film released at the end of the 1990s which is also roughly the socio-political zenith of the United States. You could easily argue the country was already in decline but it didn’t become readily apparent until the new century. Indeed, the first observation I made on recently re-watching this was that there would be plenty of tech workers who’d consider Initech a paradise compared to modern tech companies — at least those that haven’t been moved overseas or re-staffed with foreign workers. And while the petty tyranny is certainly prevalent in this film, it pales in comparison to the ghastly human resource departments of today who can be outright tyrannical. This is with hindsight though as we all know working conditions are always better in someone else’s job.

I am assuming anyone reading is familiar with the film but I will briefly explain the plot though through the prism of Vox Day’s Socio-Sexual Hierarchy which he has referred to in regard to the SSH. As mentioned, it is based on Milton but he is not the major character in the film though he is integral to the plot and gets much of the audience’s sympathy as well as providing plenty of amusement. The protagonist is Peter Gibbons played by Ron Livingston who to this day is best remembered in this role though he was also a lead in the Band of Brothers miniseries. Peter is in many ways an everyman character like Joe Bauers in Idiocracy though he certainly complains a lot more. Although he does have gamma traits, he is more of a delta than anything as are his two workmates Samir Naghesomething and Michael Bolton (yes). In short, he hates his job and his boss, Bill Lumbergh who is very memorably played by Gary Cole. The change comes when he visits a hypnotist on a Friday evening with his all-but-ex girlfriend Anne. After complaining at length about his life, Peter is hypnotised before the hypnotist has a heart-attack and dies. Peter is put into a blissful state and sleeps through Saturday though he was supposed to be at work. 

From this point on; Peter is turned into a sigma. Quick note to gammas: no, not even hypnotism will turn any of you into one. This changes his life as he stops caring about his job, no longer lives in fear of the frivolous fuhrer Lumbergh and is confident enough to woo and win 1990s Jennifer Aniston — some feat. At the same time, the staff of Initech are all being interviewed by “the Bobs” who are widely expected to recommend laying off a number of the workforce. This is all implied without being said by the passive-aggressive pair and is still typical of how the average workplace handles delicate matters like people’s livelihoods. 

Peter’s newfound indifference gains the interest of the Bobs and they consider him for promotion after he openly tells them how little work he does. They mistake this indifference for the same sociopathy that is a prerequisite for executive level promotion. Letting their guards down, they openly tell Peter who they plan to sack which includes his two hard-working and useful friends. It is interesting with hindsight to observe that none of the obviously less-critical female employees are let go. Another scene with the Bobs and Lumbergh has them realising Milton had been previously let go but nobody had told him and he was still getting paid due to an accounting error. Rather than tell him, they decide to simply stop paying him and laugh about it. Although played for laughs, it is even more clear to me now than it was then that people working at the executive level are indeed that callous.

This scene with the Bobs breaks the hypnosis and he shares what he is learned with Michael and Samir and encourages them on a scheme to secretly defraud the company through their accounting system that Michael had previously revealed he was capable of doing. On embarking on this scheme, it naturally goes wrong but there is no need to add more than to say the film has a satisfying conclusion with everything previously mentioned delightfully bringing it together. It also has an extremely satisfying run-time of about 90 minutes which a great many more recent films would have done well to adopt.

There are a number of lessons to draw from the film and it is no surprise that it remains endearing even with all the changes that have happened in the twenty years since its release. One is voiced directly by Peter,

“Human beings weren’t meant to sit in little cubicles, starring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statements.”

This is true and there is no need to expand on it. Peter’s girlfriend Joanna (Aniston) also acts as the moral conscience for Peter and the audience. One memorable scene has Peter explaining the plan to defraud the company with Joanna stating with moral clarity after patiently listening, “So, you’re stealing?” As scoundrels do, Peter attempts to justify this — even absurdly bringing the dastardly deeds of Mister Moustache into it. Near the end of the film, Joanna (who has herself had issues with her employer), tells Peter simply,

“Peter, most people don’t like their jobs. But you go out there and find something that makes you happy.”

Sometimes you hear people talk about how the film is anti-work or use it to justify their poor work-ethic. I think such people where they exist are certainly missing the point as Joanna’s line indicates. People need to work and work needs to be done. The criticism is more aimed at the soul-destroying office environment and the way people then (and even more now) are treated more as replaceable equipment. None of the work in the film is devalued whether a waitress, a construction worker or a magazine salesman. The only people whose work is portrayed as useless are in upper and middle-management.

Another important character is Peter’s blue-collar neighbour Lawrence who is hilariously mystified when asked if he’s ever been asked if he’s “had a case of the Mondays”. His direct manner and clarity also helps Peter’s growth and they fittingly end up working together in the end.

Milton must also be discussed especially in light of the SSH mentioned above. Milton is an omega and therefore assumed harmless at best and treated with contempt at worst by most of the office staff. This mistreatment ultimately saves Samir, Michael and Peter who had at least been civil with him but is the doom of the company. The general advice for dealing with omegas is to leave them alone and Milton certainly wasn’t hurting anyone until driven to the edge.

Watch out for omegas…

The film is frequently and famously quotable and I’ve avoided all the best known lines for anyone who has yet to enjoy it. As a caution, there is some filth in the film including coarse language and sexual themes but nothing particularly gratuitous. It is a product of its times but is still generally clean as far as anything in Hollywood ever is. Apart from this, it is brilliantly written and acted and well worth watching even today.

This entry was posted in Film, Society and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.