Since I started working, every single day has been worse than the day before, so that every day you see me is the worst day of my life.”
The “job from Hell” movie genre isn’t new. A few years ago, an independent unreleased film called Swimming with Sharks was perhaps one of the best for combining sharp cynical humor with meaningful drama. It also boasted Kevin Spacey and Frank Whaley, two of the best character actors in the biz. Spacey plays the “boss from Hell” who all but drives his office assistant (Whaley) crazy. In a remote way, it’s very reminiscent of Full Metal Jacket.
Office Space and Falling Down are another two recent movies that take a look at corporate America and all the pitfalls thereof. There’s some striking similarities:
- Product of two unlikely men in Hollywood.
- Main character is an engineer.
- This character has an epiphany / psychosis.
Office was written and directed by Mike Judge, creator of “Beavis and Butthead”, the shrine to adolescent slacker humor sponsored by none other than MTV. Its meager contributions to quality programming aside, there’s something about the mind of Judge that mustn’t be overlooked. He seems to have an uncanny insight for the tastes and plight of the average audience. Judge also plugged into rural Texas suburban humor with his second animated series “King of the Hill”. Now he’s furthered his sympathy for the common man to the big screen.
Likewise, Falling was directed by the infamous Joel Shumacher, the same guy who single-handedly ruined the Batman Series with his blazingly worthless presentation of Batman & Robin. However, he directed Falling four years prior. He quickly thereafter began honing his knack for taking on scripts that matched his directing style: gross over-the-top antics. Two of which included John Grisham pulp (The Client and A Time to Kill) and a another dark spiral by Andrew Kevin Walker (8MM), the writer of Se7en.
In Office, Mr. Judge has tapped into the angst of all the post-Gen Xers that have gone establishment. Peter Gibbons, played by Ron Livingston from Swingers fame, is a hum-drum software engineer. He and friends in captivity, Samir and Michael Bolten (no, he’s no relation), are beating out fairly meaningless lives for Initech, a big corporate software firm that seems to have more managers than real working employees. Sound familiar? Well it did for most of the people in my theater too.
Worried about his listlessness, Peter’s girlfriend forces him to attend “occupational hypnotic therapy.” Suffice it to say that this was Judge’s sly jab at pop-psychology cure-alls. At some point during his session, Peter awakens from his slave-to-the-system lethargy. Realizing he doesn’t really want to be a willful prisoner, he does his best to get fired by showing up really late, abandoning company dress code, and radical remodeling of his cubicle.
Falling‘s main character is also an engineer. Played masterfully by Michael Douglas, William Foster is a hardworking defense engineer. He too is a cog in the capitalist machine, and it’s beginning to wear on him and his marriage. In a scene almost identical to one in Office, Foster is trying to get to work on a packed freeway with traffic at a standstill. What we now commonly know as “road rage” gets the better of him. Poor Foster snaps at the injustice of it all and sets out to change things one insolent incident at a time.
- Light comedy versus the dark comedy.
- The demise of the main character.
The big differences between these two fun movies is the mood. Office is a very light comedy on the highs and lows of corporate ladders everywhere, while Falling is a black comedy that turns ugly in the search for meaning and rationale in the oft unjust world of the working-class joe.
Where Office really succeeds is its startling accuracy of the inner workings of modern workplaces. Like so many Dilbert cartoons, the situations that Peter and his friends find themselves are utterly trivial. From the beginning of the movie, he is heckled by nearly a half dozen managers for not using some special cover letter on a report. In an almost tragic subplot, Peter’s colleague Milton is systematically driven to arsonist insanity when his cubicle and meager belongings (a prized stapler) are relocated more times than he can handle.
More than it may sound, all of this actually makes hysterical comedy. The audience laughs not necessarily because it’s funny in and of itself, but because they relate so eerily. The people in my theater at many points burst into riotous laughter and applause.
On his quest for mediocrity, Peter becomes a hero of sorts, defying the shackles of a demeaning and draining company. First on their revenge list, Peter and his fellow prisoners abduct the uncooperative company printer and take it to a nearby vacant lot to demolish with baseball bats, as if straight from a Scorsese mobster flick. The trio then plot to steal funds from the company with a computer virus, summoning scenes with a distinctly Tarantino slow-mo look. Finally, with the only satisfying resolution possible, Judge gives the audience what they want. Initech goes up in flames.
Starkly darker in its method, Falling demonstrates very similar issues with different outcomes. Foster has become the victim of corporate downsizing, learning that he is “no longer economically viable.” Despite loyal service to the system for years (at the expense of his family), it has turned on him leaving him desolate.
Foster’s pilgrimage through the city leads us on a discovery of all that is senseless and irrational. He tries to buy a coke at a convenience store, but doesn’t have the 85 cents. He offers to pay only what it’s probably worth, and inadvertently holds the clerk up. Venting his frustration on several food displays, he nevertheless pays 50 cents for the coke.
He then tries to order breakfast at 10:56 a.m. at a fast food burger joint. They of course refuse his order, insisting that they are now only serving lunch, regardless of the many heat-lamped breakfast sandwiches on the racks.
Then we move on to the luxurious country club golf course. Foster meets up with very irate old crotcheties who don’t take kindly to transients walking through their fairway. To shoe him off the grounds, they play target practice with him. Foster returns the favor.
Foster sees all this erosion of common decency as a direct attack on the social infrastructure of which he so struggled to be a part. Falling doesn’t end well, certainly not like Office does. In that sense, it’s more true to life. Can’t win ’em all, Foster.
So, if you’ve ever had a job or boss you hated, you’ll probably laugh out loud at Office Space. For everybody’s sake, let’s just hope your vexation doesn’t turn out like Falling Down‘s Foster.