Office Space opens with a massive traffic jam in which the drivers, encased in their cars, give play to their secret selves. The straight-arrow-looking Peter (Ron Livingston) comes apart; meek Michael (David Herman) blasts rap music but is careful to lock his doors when a black peddler wedges into an adjoining lane. It turns out these guys are computer programmers en route to their jobs at the monolithic Initech Corporation. This daily commuter snarl may be their only occasion to blow off steam. Slotted into look-alike cubicles at work, they peep over the partitions like rodents, sniffing the air for danger. Locking eyes with their boss Bill (Gary Cole) invites trouble: He'll ask you to work the weekend.
This is the first live-action feature from writer-director Mike Judge, creator of Beavis and Butt-head and co-creator of the TV series King of the Hill. He gives the film an uncluttered, almost abstract look that allows us to home in on the visual jokes, the way we might in a Jacques Tati film. That Initech office complex is so sterile it's unnerving; it's the prototype for every soul-deadening job we've ever had. Gazing into it is like staring at the floor plans for your prison block.
Judge is sharp about the jangles and subterfuges of office politics. He knows how to decode the doublespeak. When a team of efficiency experts shows up at the office to interview the staff, you don't need to be told that layoffs are pending. The drones at Initech are preternaturally sensitive to upper-management bull; they always know when the next punch is coming, and the best they can do is take it full on the chin. Judge gets the corporate details just right: the flat lighting that isolates the wage slaves as if they were lab specimens; the soft tread on acrylic carpet of slit-eyed company honchos; the chirpy secretary whose endlessly repeated telephone greeting has turned her into a human tape loop. Office Space is a white-collar comedy for the generation of lowered expectations. The toilers at Initech are the children and grandchildren of the Organization Men of the fifties. Spending their lives staring into a computer screen, they have to fight off becoming computers themselves. For most, it's a battle long since lost.
The standout rebel is Peter, who starts out in such dire straits that he finally seeks relief from an "occupational hypnotherapist." "Is there some way you can zonk me out?" he asks during his session, and then, just after Peter goes into a trance, the therapist suddenly keels over dead. Locked into his hypno-bliss, Peter is a changed dude. Showing up late to work, or not at all, he's so cavalier in his unconcern that, instead of being fired, he's recommended for an upper-level position. It's a rich joke: The less he cares, the more he's valued. But Peter is no sellout. He devises a scheme with Michael and another co-worker, Samir (Ajay Naidu), to bilk Initech, and he also enlists a newfound waitress girlfriend, Joanna (Jennifer Aniston), who has her own job woes. (She works at a place called Chotchkie's, where her boss, played by Judge, has criticized her for not pinning enough "flair" -- personally chosen buttons and pins and whatnot -- to her uniform.)
Judge has a good eye for casting -- a cartoonist's eye. The people in Office Space are live-action versions of his animated nerds and creeps and blubberers. One of them, Milton (Stephen Root), is actually based on a character from Judge's animation work. He's portrayed in the movie as a whimpering poor soul with matted hair who keeps getting marginalized until he finally ends up in an unlighted cubicle in the basement. Laid off, he refuses to leave -- he's Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener for the Dilbert generation. Boss Bob is so unctuous and androidlike, so boneless, that he might have been fashioned from poured plastic. And then there's Michael, chinless and mop-haired, who looks like a geekier Bill Gates, and whose last name, Bolton, compounds his agonies. (On first acquaintance, people are always asking him if he is related to the singer, whom Michael detests.) Judge isn't being especially cruel in accentuating the peculiarities of these people. It's just how he sees things. He's an equal-opportunity caricaturist who enjoys tickling himself.
Office Space is so enjoyable that you wish it were even better. It's targeted for the bright-young-adult audience, and that's fine but also limiting. Until now, there hasn't been a comedy about the attitudes of white-collar kids mired in corporate purgatory; the subject is so good that you want to see it blown up big-time. Judge is a bit like Joanna the waitress -- he could benefit from a bit more flair, too. Once the scheme to bilk Initech is set in motion, the off-kilter humor flattens into a take-this-job-and-shove-it thing, and the ending seems pooped-out. Judge may not be fully aware of how wildly talented he is, which, in a Hollywood culture swarming with talentless blowhards, makes him something of an anomaly. He has it in him to make classic comedies. The nut-brain Office Space is a good warm-up act to the main event.