An old algebra teacher once told our class that the movie “Office Space” only becomes truer when you get older. While we were left in linear limbo after said instructor randomly quit three weeks into the school year, it was heartening to know he took Mike Judge’s anti-cubicle philosophy to heart. But our instructor, who now works some IT job in Scottsdale, was mistaken in thinking “Office Space” was an anti-work comedy. Instead, “Office Space” is a hilarious, impassioned rally cry against the aching monotony and inherent pointlessness of what we believe work should be.
It’s amazing “Office Space” still has this profound impact, considering this film should have become out of date. Released in 1999, the movie focuses on one forlorn software engineer named Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston.) His job is to update outdated code in fear of the tech repercussions of Y2K, a catastrophic event that would never come to pass. He’s too much of a complainer to be apathetic, and far too lazy to commit to a wholly nihilist lifestyle. With an adoration for eastern Kung Fu philosophies, Peter desperately wants something to care about, an intrinsic philosophy or belief system to guide him, anything beyond the one thing he’s told he should care the most about: his job.
The unemployed masses would collectively shake their head at Peter’s hubris, telling him to quit so one of them could grab his squeaky roller seat and get paid a decent salary to play Tetris and Minesweeper all day. But Peter knows if he does quit, he’ll just end up at another office under another lumbering boss, doing work that benefits his community or the world in no significant way. A cubicle isn’t Peter’s prison; it’s the knowledge that he’ll always be in one wherever he goes.
“Office Space” echoes this tragedy through small workplace nuances that while not experienced by every full-time employee in the U.S., are still rooted in truth that they feel relatable. The high-pitched coworkers who repeat obnoxious phrases, the pudgy superiors with five dollar aftershave who come to reprimand you for something even after you apologize, outdated malfunctioning supplies, mandatory work functions, and electrified door handles that punish worker bees for daring to have the grit of entering the office in the first place. These gags are pulled off in a way that make them feel like they’ve been ripped out of our own life stories, even if it’s from a chapter that’s never been published.
The film follows Peter’s journey through these gags, all while rebelling against, then embracing a harsh but universal truth: nothing matters. When Peter rebels and complains against the nothing, he’s yelled at by superiors and is unhappy. When he realizes that he should love the nothing, he gets a new girlfriend, a promotion, with life seeming more chipper in every sense. But when Peter dares to make something from the nothing, trying to steal hundreds of thousands of neglected dollars and cents with the help of his co-workers Michael (David Herman) and Samir (Ajay Naidu), things become disastrous once again, Luckily, he’s saved by the nutcase Milton (Stephen Root), who on his own journey of embracing the nothing, torched the entire building to a smoldering crisp. By film’s close, we see Peter happily embracing nothing again, cleaning up the rubble of a building that no longer exists.
But Judge isn’t quick to put all the blame on the modern office environment, with the restaurant and service industry equally skewered for good measure. Peter’s girlfriend Joanna (Jennifer Aniston) spends her days on her feet while Peter is sitting down. Instead of Peter’s obnoxious coworkers and supervisors, Joanna has to deal with needy and unruly customers. They both wear a uniform of sorts, and have supervisors with unreasonable expectations. But someone in Joanna’s shoes would look at Peter’s job with envy, just as Peter later looks at his neighbor Lawrence (Diedrich Bader) and his outdoor construction with awe. The grass is always greener in the working world, but look closely near the edges and you’ll see every blade is still penned in by four bleak cubicle walls.
There’s nothing wrong with enjoying your job, and “Office Space” is partly responsible for the inaccurate belief that the natural state of things is to hate work. But beyond its endlessly quotable dialogue from far-too-familiar corporate goofballs, this movie taps deep down into that struggle that pervades every worker bee at some point or another. The fact that you don’t matter, your current job doesn’t matter nor will a new one. And only until you embrace the nothingness will you finally see the light.