Yeah, hi. Welcome to another installment of Movies That Get Carded Now. For those of you who are new to this series, these are reviews of films that are turning 21 this year. If films could consume alcohol, then those released in roughly the first quarter of 1999 could order a drink at bar. They are young enough though that they would probably be asked to show some I.D. I’ll admit I didn’t do as many of these I wanted to last year. 1998 was a pretty awesome year in film, but in 2019 I only looked back on The Truman Show. I think if I only did one movie from that year, The Truman Show was a solid choice, but I meant to do more and I promise I will not be so neglectful about looking back on the year 1999.
Today I’ll be revisiting Office Space, a film that bombed at the box office upon release in February 1999 but eventually gained cult status for its satirical take on corporate culture and the struggles of several workers who, for good reason, hate their jobs. One thing I like to talk about in this series is how the movies I’m looking back on have aged, and right from the start I have to say this one is still painfully accurate and applicable. Yes, the technology in these cubicles is outdated and the cars are clearly from the late 90s, but the problems that arise for these characters are still commonplace in many employment settings. The whole subplot about “the Bobs” (John C. McGinley and Paul Willson) coming in to help Initech downsize is still an experience all too many workers can relate too, though now they have the added bonus of seeing human workers replaced with automation.
I can personally relate to having a job where you never know when the boss is going to call you in. To be fair, I knew that would be the case when I accepted a position at a newspaper, but social media and online news have made reporting an even more constant task. In general, technology has made it easier for bosses in any industry to contact employees at any time, whether it’s a weekend or even during vacation. Consequently, scenes like the one where Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole) repeatedly contacts Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) to ask why he hasn’t shown up for work on a Saturday are probably even more familiar to today’s workforce than they were in 1999.
Of course I also have to talk about flair. Joanna (Jennifer Aniston in her career best performance) is pressured repeatedly by her manager to add flair to her uniform. The restaurant where she works is clearly a rip off of TGI Fridays, and apparently management’s policy is for the staff to camouflage with all the crap on the walls. There’s no set policy on how much flair anyone should wear, but Joanna is repeatedly told she is probably not wearing enough. Of course, the arbitrary nature of the flair rules leads her to tell her boss off. This is another scene that just gets more hilarious with time. I’ve had two jobs at this point in my career where employees weren’t exactly required to wear flair, but the company wasted a ton of money every month on merch that was handed out to employees as if we were walking, talking company billboards. I totally understand shirts with company logos on them. There are situations when it’s necessary to wear those. Pens are fine. Everyone needs those in their work space. But things companies usually need not spend money on for employees include branded phone chargers, coffee mugs, laptop cases, hoodies, hats, gloves, ice scrapers and coolers. Management will never stop wasting money on this crap because it’s a marketing technique, but it doesn’t make employees feel good about their job, it just makes them feel used. Anyway, it’s a testament to how much this film has resonated with society that every time I arrived at work to find these so called gifts on my desk, all of my co-workers, no matter which company, referred to these things as “flair.”
Finally, there’s Stephen Root as Milton Waddams. I don’t know if there has ever been a name better matched to a personality than Milton Waddams. It’s just perfection, and while his arc is filled with more extreme actions than those of most workers, his story is a cringey-funny metaphor for how much abuse capitalism teaches us to put up with in order to be good employees. He’s the opposite of Peter. At every turn is denied the tools to do his job (that red stapler) and incentive (a paycheck) to keep working for these morons, yet he continues to show up. It’s interesting then that both he and Peter end up taking out their frustrations against Initech in criminal ways.
Mike Judge’s script says a lot about bad management, but it also ends on the hopeful note that the idea of work, the idea of doing something meaningful, is not a bad one. Peter eventually finds happiness by taking a job where he can clearly see the benefits of his efforts. He also has room in his life for other activities and people. It’s a balance we all want, but finding it is a struggle. It’s a bittersweet conclusion, because two decades later, most U.S. citizens are working too much, often at multiple jobs, and not getting paid enough. Office Space has aged well since its release, but only because the U.S. economic system has not.