In the 19th century, Thoreau said that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.” A century and a half later, many of us spend our waking hours toiling away at suffocating jobs that we don’t like, unable to shake the feeling that what we do for money is really just unnecessary BS.
In 1999, Mike Judge, drawing on his time and experience in the high-tech world, put out Office Space, which follows the exploits of Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston), a cube dweller who hates his job. He sees a hypnotherapist who promptly drops dead of a heart attack after hypnotizing Peter and putting him into a state of ecstasy. Peter gets promoted in the company, but finds out that his friends Michael and Samir are about to be fired. Together, they devise a foolproof way to embezzle money from the company…but due to a software glitch, they end up ripping off the company for millions.
It’s not the story line of Office Space that makes it so great, though – it’s the set pieces.
It’s the VP Lumbergh showing up at an employee’s cubicle and casually saying, “Hello Peter, whaaaaaat’s happening?” before ordering them to work over the weekend and saying, “if you could just do that, that’d be greeeeat.” It’s the tedium of a drive to work with an elderly man on the sidewalk using a walker and making better time. It’s an entire department of people singing “Happy Birthday” as if it were a funeral dirge. It’s Peter and his buddies getting so frustrated and angry with a malfunctioning printer that they beat it to death with baseball bats in a field. It’s the put-upon office drone Milton having his office moved over and over, muttering and clinging to his red Swingline stapler like a life preserver. It’s waitress Joanna (Jennifer Aniston) butting heads with her manager at Chotchkie’s, a mediocre, faceless chain restaurant, over the “37 pieces of flair” he insists that she wear.
Those characters and scenarios are what made Office Space so memorable. With Office Space, Judge managed to strike a nerve with thousands of people who can identify with all those situations because they live them on a daily basis. People who daily question whether what they do for a living is really worth it to make a car payment and live in a two-bedroom apartment miles from work. Office Space was made on a scant budget and got a very limited release and lukewarm reviews, but almost two decades later it’s endlessly quotable and still lives on in people’s DVD machines. In fact, Swingline had stopped making red staplers years ago…but the company received so many requests for red staplers after that movie, they decided to put them into production again. Dry and ruthlessly funny, Office Space spoke straight to the people who die a little every day in their cubicles.
Seven years later, Judge put out Idiocracy. That movie’s story line had everyman Army private Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) and a hooker (Maya Rudolph) who were part of a failed military experiment. The two of them were selected for their ordinariness…completely average in size, physiology and intellect, they were at the top of every bell curve. They were forgotten in cryogenic storage until five centuries in the future, when they wake up to an America so incredibly dumbed-down that they are now by far the most intelligent people around.
In this dystopian America, society can no longer even deal with basics like trash disposal, infrastructure and food supply. Americans have become much, much stupider, more rude and violent, and the institutions of government have been completely sold out to corporate interests. Militarized, gunned-up (and very stupid) cops rule the streets, and the surveillance state has evolved to a point where every American has to wear a bar code tattoo. The top-rated TV show is “Ow, My Balls!” – nothing but people getting whacked in the crotch over and over. Even water fountains are now squirting the sports drink Brawndo (The Thirst Mutilator!). Bauers sees a way out when he promises to solve the country’s most pressing problem…crops that won’t grow because they’re being irrigated with Brawndo. Instead, he proposes using water (“Water? You mean, like, from the toilet?!?”).
Again, it’s not the story line so much as the characters and the setpieces that made Idiocracy so funny and such a hit. The laughter, though, is uneasy. It’s near impossible to watch this movie, then turn on your TV or go into the outside world and not think about it; not think about the reflections of a coarsened, dumbed-down American society that are everywhere.
This subversive, dark and cynical comedy was barely released at all and almost stayed in the can forever. It was dumped out by FOX to a few dozen theaters for a very short run, with no marketing, TV ads or trailer. In fact, Starbucks, Costco and H & R Block were reputed to have sued FOX over the movie (none of those corporations got off lightly in the film). Again, like Office Space, Idiocracy has had incredibly long legs since its release, with thousands of views on YouTube, Amazon and Netflix. If Mike Judge is good at any one thing, he’s pretty good at commenting on the human condition in hilarious and sometimes-unnerving ways.