Office Space

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Director: Mike Judge
Writer: Mike Judge (based on his Milton animated reels)

  • Ron Livingston — Peter Gibbons
  • David Herman — Michael Bolton
  • Ajay Naidu — Samir Nagheenanajar
  • Stephen Root — Milton Waddams
  • Gary Cole — Bill Lumbergh
  • Jennifer Aniston — Joanna: waitress at Chotchkie's
  • Mike Judge — manager of Chotchkie's
  • Diedrich Bader — Lawrence: neighbor

Twentieth Century Fox: 1999

89 minutes August 2012

Quasi-life among the partitions

Office Space is a comedy of the "take this job and shove it!" persuasion. There is a strong theme of job frustration, mixed with personal and social frustration and a tinge of romance. The office comedy dominates, running from psychology to slapstick as the office-cubicle denizens try to cope with their stultifying work atmosphere and a maddeningly tiresome boss.

The protagonist Peter Gibbons (played by Ron Livingston), is a computer programmer (or software engineer if you like) making multitudinous fixes for the Y2K date-truncation problem in financial software. His pals (David Herman and Ajay Naidu) are adrift on the same sea of frustration. Stephen Root plays the hapless clerk at the bottom of the totem pole, and Gary Cole plays their really aggravating boss.

The situation changes abruptly when Peter is inveigled by his girlfriend into seeing a hypnotherapist, who via trance places him into a truly relaxed state. He no longer worries about work at all, and in fact barely manages to show up. Peter's newfound openness however impresses the downsizing consultants the company has hired. This all gets more outrageous and funnier as it goes.

Fresher air outside

What balances the stifling-to-weird headspace of the office are two outriggers: the sandwich-shop waitress Joanna (Jennifer Aniston), at Chotchkie's where the programmers often eat lunch; and Peter's next-door neighbor, blue-collar Lawrence (Diedrich Bader). Joanna and Lawrence are straightforward, adaptable, freely-breathing folks who are not caught up in the cramped thinking and emotions of the cubicle-dwellers in the office. Peter's burgeoning romance with Joanna, and his from-the-shoulder friendship with Lawrence, provide stabilizers by which Peter perhaps may be able to evaluate his office as former trap, current amusement, and potential target.

Joanna's waitressing environment has a fast-food equivalent of the office's mental space: "flair", the set of pin-on theme buttons which the employees are encouraged to wear on their uniforms to display their enthusiasm. In miniature, of course, this is an analogue of part of what's wrong with the office management.

Two-bit decision makers

I've spent sufficient time in the pale-gray-cloth cubicles of programming office-spaces to empathize easily with the story of Office Space. Earlier cubicle partitions were wallboard cheaply painted. Psychological environments vary widely among workplaces and over time in the same place; I've seen no correlation with the quality of the physical environment.

The real-world Y2K problem stemmed from an unfortunate choice made decades earlier by managers and programmer-analysts: saving hordes of bytes in their magnetic-tape files by coding 1965 as 65, 1975 as 75, and so on. What happened when calendar comparisons approached 2000 is that years of say '99 would be greater than years of '01, and everything involving expiration-dates, birth-dates, payments, mortgages, and chronologies of all sorts would croak and fail — or worse, give outrageous errors. The earlier designers didn't believe their programs would still be running twenty or thirty years later in 2000 A.D.; and in that remote chance, the perpetrators would be retired and it would be someone else's worry.

Of course a great deal of tedious, hurried work was needed in the 1990s to make up for the decades of short-term thinking. I remember an Oracle database executive in the mid-1990s speaking at a meeting about the looming crisis, who was surprised when I told him that I'd been using four-digit years in everything I'd designed for a long time. He said that was rare; I'd thought it was obvious. Well, that's the office mind-space for you.

Office Space, despite feeling all too realistic, develops quite a funny story. The cast, including a number I've not named, does a fine job: providing more conflict, pathos, and humor than we might expect to find among the partitions. And remember those romance and friendship outriggers, in the fresher air outside.


© 2012 Robert Wilfred Franson

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