Before I can even bring myself to give a single critique of Mike Judge’s cult classic Office Space on its 20th anniversary, which we all know by now notoriously bombed at first and then went on to be the ultimate cinematic comment on the drudgery of soul-killing, white-collar cubicle hell, I have to make one thing dead clear: I love the film, and I need you to know this. I don’t just love it — I admire it, because it has the rare gift of being petulant and true at the same time.
Its idea that the working world ultimately corrupts the possibility for real happiness by dehumanizing us all to Kafakesque proportions is both accurate and a bit naïve, but Judge never had any problem blending those concepts in a totally accessible, enjoyable way that never sold out the depth of that bleakness. Being deep, dumb and hilarious at the same time isn’t the easiest trick because it takes a high degree of intelligence to pull off, and he’s done it time and time again with Beavis and Butt-Head, King of the Hill and Silicon Valley in spades.
I watched Office Space endlessly after it came out in 1999. At the time, I was fresh out of college and copy editing for a corporation that permitted only a 30-minute lunch break, obsessed over minor errors and pitted us against each other like corporate drones who could be sucked dry and pacified with a free pizza every now and again to work overtime if we narced each other out at every turn. It worked. As we were constantly reminded, we needed that job, and also they were gonna need us to come in on Saturday.
Getting high and watching Office Space with my newly minted working stiffs was the early 2000s equivalent of self-care. It was nourishing and healing to watch people get fed up enough to beat the shit out of a printer in a field, or scam a soulless corporation out of a couple hundred thou because fuck the man.
The real brilliance of the film though is that they’re unhappy with what are, by all accounts, Good Jobs. This wasn’t some shitty farming job (like my ancestors had), or some shitty job waiting tables (like I had), or being assistant manager at a Subway, though the brilliant “flair” bit at the TGIF knockoff proves Judge gets the demeaning emotional labor of service jobs just as well. (I waited tables for a while at an O’Charley’s knockoff in the South called Chesney’s, so I deeply appreciated that satire, too.)
But Peter Gibbon’s (Ron Livingston, brilliant in the role of disaffected slacker) software job presumably came with a good salary and paid vacation, a 401(k) and the possibility for promotion. In other words, this was 9 to 5 but for the college-educated set, and rather than throw a coup to humanize the workplace and give families flexible schedules, it burned the fucking place down, stopping only to mock how easy it is to rise through the ranks by not really giving a shit.
True to the classic tradition of Gen X apathy, the film demonstrated that even a solid gig could never make you happy by itself. Work doesn’t set you free, and, in the end, capitalism usually gets the best of all of us, robbing us of true joy, the ability to enjoy our leisure time because we’re always tethered to work, and any real sense of being appreciated or valued by the Man.
But here’s where I take issue. It may seem like a trivial detail, but it matters.
In the end, Peter decides to throw it all away for a construction job, where doing simple manual labor will ostensibly give him the real satisfaction of making or doing something with his hands, and clocking out at the end of the day to leave it all behind. It’s simple, honest work, and that’s something to be proud of, as opposed to the farce of coding all day for a product whose relevance or necessity or purpose is dubious.
There is, of course, dignity in nearly all work, in earning a paycheck, and particularly work that builds, repairs or fixes. But is that plot turn really right for the film’s true spirit? To me, it isn’t. It’s a tidy copout that stands in as some kind of happy ending, and I can’t possibly believe that would be Judge’s or anyone’s solution to what to do with the realization that a college degree might be useless.
Basically, Peter goes from working for Lumbergh to building some other Lumbergh’s house. If a construction job is the path of least resistance compared to the rat race, we’re still fucked. That’s backbreaking, soul-crushing, brutally dangerous work that most certainly underpays. In other words, I’m not sure we life-hacked the solution to the corporate slog here, because the answer isn’t menial labor either.
This isn’t a judgment of Judge (or menial labor), but from reading the backstory on his inspiration from the film in terms of his own autobiography, it’s not his path to fulfilling employment, either. He, like many artists, first took any work he could get, but work that likely didn’t stoke his own creative juices. He moved from alphabetizing at a temp agency to working as an engineer at a military contractor before he took his shot as a writer and animator/director. That’s important to the fact that Office Space exists, because it’s the inspiration for characters like Milton and the idea that you can’t leave your work behind even after you go home.
But in Judge’s own life, it wasn’t until he tried his hand at an actual, engaging endeavor (and a lifelong dream to animate) that he found anything like the real success or validation he sought and could never find from the drudgery of office work. That’s high stakes on which to hang one’s happiness, and in his case, it paid off.
That’s not an option for everyone of course, and again, as a person who has nothing but working-class roots, it’s nothing to sneer at that people work in service fields and construction and labor jobs. But that’s got nothing to do with the real existential dilemma most people on earth face, which is how to find real meaning in their work, particularly when the work itself is repetitive and dull. That doesn’t mean I’m saying everyone should hang up a software gig and go write children’s books, either.
But while the ending of Office Space may make sense to wrap things up for Peter’s character — I’m not sure we’d sympathize as much with him if he just wanted to be a famous novelist, instead of his real dream, to do nothing — it’s the only part of the film that leaves its audience with no better answers than it started with, and only more questions to ponder.
That’s not necessarily a failure of the film, but it seems to me to be the one and really only failure of the film’s humanity. For all that Judge clearly and brilliantly understands about the illusion of work as a necessary evil in a senseless world that’s supposed to somehow make us feel useful, I wonder why he gave us such a pat “solution” to the problem of menial office work.
Is it that it’d be too depressing to show us that for the Peters of the world, there is no answer when you desire to never work at all, or did Judge just give us an easy contrast to the tie-and-pleated-pants illusion of success?
Either way, I suspect if we could check in with Peter now, he’d be scheming to leave this construction job, too, probably teaming up with a few disgruntled colleagues to smash the shit out of a tractor in a field, or figure out how to scam on some worker’s comp with a well-timed head injury. And then what?