'Office' Puts Corporate Culture Through the Comedy Shredder

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the sharp and funny "Office Space," Mike Judge, the creator of "Beavis and Butt-head," makes his zesty live-action feature directorial debut with a picture that works both as a white-collar romantic comedy and as a crisp satire of today's corporate realities. Bristling with shrewd observation, inspired humor and all-around smarts, "Office Space" is a winner about a guy who's beginning to feel like a loser.

Ron Livingston's Peter Gibbons is an amusingly average young man who is becoming bored to death working as a computer programmer in a vast generic office of an engineering company situated in an industrial park that looks exactly like a zillion others. He lives in a perfectly decent but seemingly immense apartment structure that also resembles countless others. He is as much "one of the crowd" as was James Murray in King Vidor's silent classic "The Crowd" more than 70 years ago.

Peter is increasingly dissatisfied with his job but remains essentially timid in the face of his awful boss, played to scene-stealing perfection by Gary Cole as one of those dapper tyrants who rule with a casual, presumptuous drawn-out drawl. Then his soon-to-be-former girlfriend insists he see a hypnotist who casts a spell over Peter.

The spell is cast with such intensity that the effort proves fatal to the hypnotist. But it leaves Peter so relaxed and uninhibited that he starts turning up to work only when he feels like it. His termination surely would be immediate were it not for the arrival of the two deliciously unctuous Bobs (John C. Ginley and Paul Willson), efficiency experts to whom he is so breathtakingly candid that they see in him material for promotion; after all, how many employees would be honest enough to say that they're bored because the boss doesn't challenge them enough?

At this point a more conventional film would show Peter coping with a higher rung up the corporate ladder, but Judge, through the presence of the Bobs, veers his film in an all-too-topical direction instead, toward downsizing, that harsh reality of the modern workplace. Once Peter discovers that his two best friends at work, Michael (David Herman) and Samir (Ajay Naidu), are in danger of losing their jobs, "Office Space" takes flight as a zany adventure, including a romance for Peter with Jennifer Aniston's pert, level-headed Joanna, a waitress at a nearby theme restaurant where everyone has to wear buttons to show their "flair."

What makes "Office Space" such an amusing treat is that it is chock-full of deftly defined characters. Starting with its stars, virtually every actor on whom the camera lingers even briefly gets to shine: Diedrich Bader as Peter's laid-back next-door neighbor, a contented construction worker; Stephen Root as the apprehensive, dithering and vaguely threatening most-put-upon worker in the entire office; and Todd Duffey's obnoxious waiter are but three standouts in a cast that includes Richard Riehle, Joe Bays, Orlando Jones and William King, who also contribute equally fine work.

Judge constantly finds humor in everyday exasperation: Michael coping with the coincidence that his last name happens to be Bolton; Joanna having to put up with King's relentless boss, who insists that 15 buttons with silly sayings on them don't show enough "flair" when Duffey sports a whopping 37; everyone in Peter's office wrangling with a computer printer constantly breaking down.

Working with astute production designer Edward McAvoy, Judge subtly evokes the creeping, relentless homogenization of modern life and the piling on of trivial soul-withering regulations that reflect a steady, mindless insistence on workers to conform, eroding them of their sense of individuality and freedom--even while insisting that they "express themselves."

The more you peer beneath the surface humor of "Office Space" the scarier and more serious its vision of contemporary existence becomes.

* MPAA rating: R, for language and brief sexuality. Times guidelines: Apart from some blunt words the film is suitable for all ages.

'Office Space'

Ron Livingston: Peter

Jennifer Aniston: Joanna

David Herman: Michael Bolton

Ajay Naidu: Samir

A 20th Century Fox presentation. Writer-director Mike Judge. Producers Michael Rotenberg and Daniel Rappaport. Executive producer Guy Riedel. Cinematographer Tim Suhrstedt. Editor David Rennie. Music John Frizzell. Costumes Melinda Eshelman. Production designer Edward McAvoy. Art director Adele Plauche. Set decorator Carla Curry. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes.

In general release.

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