Imagine a live-action version of the “Dilbert” comic strip with a touch of Hal Hartley’s deadpan absurdism, and you’re ready for the frequently uproarious “Office Space.” Written and directed by Mike Judge, creator of Beavis and Butt-Head and “King of the Hill,” this satirical comedy about white-collar wage-slavery is amusing and accessible enough to have wide-ranging appeal. But the pic should find an especially receptive audience among office workers of the sort represented in Judge’s cunning screenplay. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine a new trend: Friday happy-hour get-togethers topped off with visits to multiplexes for repeat viewings of “Office Space.”
Ron Livingston gives a breakthrough performance in the lead role of Peter Gibbons, a young computer programmer who tries to keep a low profile while marking time inside his cubicle at Initech Corp. Peter hates everything about his job — the stifling and spirit-killing routine, the relentlessly petty demands of procedure-obsessed superiors, the rampant paranoia inspired by efficiency experts with a license to downsize. Trouble is, Peter also hates the idea of losing a steady paycheck.
Desperate to make his life less miserable, if not more bearable, Peter agrees to a consultation with an “occupational hypnotherapist.” The therapist is felled by a fatal heart attack before he can revive Peter from an attitude-adjusting trance. But the tragedy has an unexpected upside: In addition to being freed of chronic anxieties about his work, Peter becomes totally immune to fears of unemployment. In short, he stops caring and starts living.
Much to the consternation of his smarmy boss (Gary Cole), Peter blithely ignores a directive to work overtime hours on weekends and arrives at the office whenever he damn well pleases during the rest of the week. On those increasingly rare occasions when he is at his desk, Peter takes a disdainful approach to the niceties of paperwork and spends much of his time playing games on his computer. He even dares to remove a cubicle wall that blocks his view of a window.
Judge is so dead-on accurate with his sharply satirical barbs that it matters surprisingly little that “Office Space” has such a slapdash plot. At first, the comedy seems at least partially inspired by “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Herman Melville’s classic story about a discontent clerk who causes great consternation simply by refusing to work. But Judge moves the story in a different direction when he has two efficiency experts decide Peter is “a straight-shooter with upper management written all over him.”
And then, just when it looks like the pic will chart Peter’s effortless rise up the corporate ladder, Judge once again shifts gears: “Office Space” suddenly becomes a caper comedy, as Peter agrees to help two downsized co-workers take revenge on Initech with a high-tech embezzling scheme borrowed from “a very underrated movie” — “Superman III.”
Livingston strikes a deft balance between nonchalance and befuddlement, and is effortlessly ingratiating in the style of a younger Tom Hanks. As his co-workers and partners in crime, David Herman and Ajay Naidu lend strong support while earning their own fair share of laughs. (Herman plays a software engineer named Michael Bolton — and, yes, there are many gags about his name.)
Other standouts include Cole as the soft-spoken, self-absorbed boss from hell, Diedrich Bader as Peter’s redneck next-door neighbor, and Stephen Root as a disgruntled office worker whose mumbled threats of revenge lead to a predictable payoff.
Despite her prominent billing, Jennifer Aniston has relatively little to do as a waitress with her own workplace pressures. For the most part, she’s on hand simply to provide romantic interest for Livingston, which she does capably enough.
“Office Space” was filmed on location in and around Austin, but the locale is never specifically identified in the pic. The story could be taking place anywhere. And that, of course, will make it even easier for many ticket buyers to savor its universal resonances and experience ticklish shocks of recognition. You don’t have to be a corporate drone to enjoy Judge’s satire, but “Office Space” is even more fun if you can recognize the bitter truths beneath the hilarious gags.