Monday, August 09, 2010

Office Space is Satire

Originally found on Judge Ye Not:

Is Peter Gibbons a hero? Does he represent workers everywhere as unfortunate souls who must toil endlessly to no avail? Did you answer yes? You totally relate to Peter, you say? You feel just like him when you’re at your job?

(sigh…) After all these years, people still don’t understand Office Space.

When Samir turns back to Peter and scowls, “you are a very… bad person. Peter,” he’s telling us precisely what we try to ignore about the main character.

Peter Gibbons is a bad person. Peter cries that the company he works for is evil, but in the same conversation suggests to his girlfriend that maybe she should steal some money from her cash register at work.

How many reviews have focused on the “sterile,” or “mundane” aspects of Office Space’s portrayal of cubicle culture? Nearly all of them. And why? Because it’s easy to see in Mike Judge’s realist-satire. His sets do not look like typical Hollywood environments. They look like our real lives, or something worse.

Sure, it sucks to work in a cubicle. We all know that. It’s obvious that Mike Judge knows that as well. But the banalities are not what makes Office Space a satire. By definition, a human folly must be upheld for criticism, and in Judge’s satire the chief culprit is almost always the protagonist. In King of the Hill, Hank’s ignorance is often portrayed as moral certitude. Beavis and Butthead are declarers of all that is “cool,” while being the most unpopular and dimwitted teenagers in their school. In Extract we see a husband whose primary concern is not making his wife happy, but finding a way to achieve his own orgasm. And in Office Space, the laziest man at the office gets the biggest promotions.

What’s similar for all of these lead characters is their extreme wrongfulness. In the real world, ignorance, stupidity, infidelity, and laziness are not rewarded. In the world of satire, Mike Judge achieves comedy by reversing the effect. His characters are portrayed as heroic for valiantly pursuing their misdeeds to the fullest extents possible, but only in the context of the story. These pursuits would be foolish in real life.

If anyone ever related to Peter Gibbons, it’s only because they’ve been lazy. Peter’s excuse of it being a “problem of motivation” is bullshit. In the comfort of his own home Peter admits that he’d “do nothing” if he had the choice. And as his woozy friend reminds us, you don’t have to be a millionaire to do nothing. You’ll be broke. Most likely, a bum.

The brilliance of Mike Judge’s live-action films is how realistic they look aesthetically, yet how utterly absurd the satire is. That juxtaposition is difficult to spot at first, but it’s there every time.

The realism is what’s funny initially. The passive aggressive bosses, the red haired woman chirping “JUST a mo-mint!” and the ADD server at the Chili’s ripoff who can’t help but be disgustingly cheery at every waking moment of his way-too-positive life. It’s brutal stuff that we can all relate to, as badly as we wished we couldn’t. But that observational stuff is just one small piece of a much bigger picture in Office Space.

What is the protagonist’s desire? Certainly not to become motivated to work harder at Initech. His desire is to do nothing. He doesn’t want to care about his work. Where does this folly lead him? Nightmares, and nearly the reality of a “pound-me-in-the-ass” prison.

Of course, not every lazy person on this planet falls down the same slippery slope as Peter Gibbons, but that’s why this works as satire. None of us let our laziness become our primary motivator in life, but if we did it might look something like Office Space.

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