In another of those baffling “how the hell did that happen?” cinematic milestones, Mike Judge’s sharp workplace satire Office Space celebrates its 20th anniversary this month. For what is now almost universally accepted as a comedy classic, it initially failed to make much of a pop cultural impression. The film bowed out with a limp $12m world-wide box office take at the time, despite the pulling power of creator Mike Judge, who was making his first leap to live-action following the huge success of animated works King of the Hill and the iconic duo of Beavis and Butt-Head. Also on board was a red hot Jennifer Aniston, still in the middle of her small screen domination via Friends.
Originally brought to life as a series of four animated short films that Judge created about a bedraggled office worker known as Milton, it was the home video platform which breathed new life into the film, turning an underperformer – it failed to gain even a cinema release here in the UK – to an almost immediately endlessly quotable, buzzed about cult favourite. Starring the perennially underrated Ron Livingston as a bored office stooge, Judge takes some lovely satirical swipe at not only that white-collar environment and mentality, but also the similarly exasperating demands on employees stuck within the low-income hospitality industry. This is painfully evident in a scene where Aniston’s waitress is scolded by her manager for not having enough ‘pieces of flair’ (i.e. oversized badges and garish broches) on her outfit.
Predating Ricky Gervais’ first series of The Office by two years, while both are tonally very different, Office Space manages to capture that minutiae of life in a cramped work booth – and the repetitive, monotonous daily grind which comes with the profession – as succinctly and often as hilariously as Gervais’ ground-breaking show did. The characters are familiar to anyone who has ever worked in such an environment, be it holding that similarly repellent view of upper management, beautifully personified here by Gary Cole’s slimy (and future meme generator) vice president Bill Lumbergh. But it’s the aforementioned socially-calamitous office skivvy Milton (played to absolute perfection by Stephen Root) who has that same squirm factor for the audience as Gervais’ David Brent possesses.
The films shifts gears midway through and Peter’s hypnosis-induced lackadaisical approach to work which has fired the narrative so far, suddenly gives way to an embezzlement scheme against his employer Initech, orchestrated with his two closest friends and work allies, Samir (Ajay Naidu) and the unfortunately named Michael Bolton (David Herman). Judge has since expressed his regret at being unable to essentially rewrite the third act, and while the film might go out with a whimper rather than a bang, there’s still so many sublime moments, not least a huge dose of audience catharsis in the middle of the film when the exasperated trio bring the habitually useless office printer to a secluded field and proceed to smash it to bits with baseball bats and their fists and feet.
Judge has since experienced an equally bumpy ride with his two subsequent features, 2006’s Idiocracy and 2009’s Extract, although the former has gained more prominence and satirical weight since Trump entered the Oval Office. It’s unlikely, however, that either will ultimately be embraced to the extent of his live-action debut, which stands head and shoulders above those popular teen sex comedies which seemed to dominate the genre back in the late nineties.
Watch Office Space on CHILI