By Jim Emerson
Special to MSN Movies
"When I find myself in a position like this, I ask myself: 'What would General Motors do?' And then I do the opposite."
On my right calf is a tattoo of a UPC code that expresses far more concisely and profoundly than language how I feel about doing a job just for the paycheck. It's the bar code from Nirvana's "Nevermind" album -- you know, the one with the naked baby boy swimming after the dollar bill on a fishhook. It's my little private joke -- and constant reminder -- about feelings of depersonalization I felt at old jobs. And if you've ever been employed at a place that made you feel like a shrink-wrapped product, or like you were just treading water until the next paycheck (and who hasn't?)... well then, you know what it's like.
Movies and television usually deal with work in generic ways: The characters have jobs, and we sometimes even accompany them to work, but we rarely get a feeling for what it's like to actually do their jobs. That's why Mike Judge's "Office Space" (and now his white-collar sequel in spirit "Extract") connects with many people who have spent (or spend) so much time in tedious drudgery at low-level jobs where they are forced to interact with extremely unpleasant people -- either the unwashed public or nut-bag co-workers.
Our review: The Funny Business of "Extract"
Sure, some movies deal with the high-level power games of the CEOs, but how many of us really know, or care, what it's like to be a CEO? On the other hand, nearly all of us know what it's like to work in a factory or a warehouse, to sit in front of a monitor in a cubicle at a suburban office park or to sit in conference rooms for unendurably pointless meetings...
Any movie can find material for comedy or drama in the clash or crash of business titans. But the films that can capture the everyday trials, betrayals, temporary triumphs and perpetual humiliations of low or mid-level jobs without succumbing to soul-numbing tedium themselves — now, that is an achievement worthy of a copper-plated, adhesive-backed Employee of the Month plaque. We'll have a party with refreshments to congratulate the achievers and present the plaques Thursday, from 3 to 3:25 p.m., in Meeting Room C. Bring your own coffee cups.
Title: "Office Space" (1999)
Company: Initech Software
Workplace: Generic cubicle jungle, Austin, Texas
Occupation: Generic cubicle gnome
Bill Lumbergh, Division V.P.: Milt, we're gonna need to go ahead and move you downstairs into Storage B.... So if you could go ahead and pack up your stuff and move it down there that would be terrific, OK?
Milton: Excuse me, I believe you have my stapler...
For about the first hour, Mike Judge's "Office Space" is a devastatingly funny observational comedy about the daily horrors of the office. Watching it, you almost feel like you're watching a documentary made by a corporate spy with a hidden camera... and a "bad case of the Mondays." Take the way Lumbergh (Gary Cole) speaks, in a disinterested, passive-aggressive, sing-song way, like a management training zombie on autopilot. Admit it: You know these people, and you're mortified that you do.
Once the plot gimmicks kick in, "Office Space" falls apart faster than Enron: the hypnotism device, the hacker revenge storyline.... But whereas those perfunctory elements drive the predictable three-act structure, the real movie is in the fine details around the edges. One particularly perceptive touch worth mentioning: When Peter (Ron Livingston) forgets to follow a new procedure, his (multiple) bosses approach him to ask him if he got the memo about the change in protocol. Yes, he says, I have it right here; I knew about the change, I just forgot. But they don't seem to hear anything he says and behave as if nobody has ever just made a simple mistake, insisting on repeating the new policy and telling him they'll get him a copy of the memo about it. Insert scream here.
Title: "The Office" (2001-2003)
Company: Wernham Hogg paper company
Workplace: Slough branch office
Occupation: Office worker
The BBC series "The Office" (just two seasons and a special, all on DVD) is the "Iceman Cometh" of workplace comedy and the most profoundly, excruciatingly funny exploration of what it means to work for a living. Instead of congregating in a saloon, the characters come together at the office, each bringing his own pipe dream to the job: District Manager David Brent (Ricky Gervais) fancies himself not only a comedian and a musician but also his employees' best friend; Gareth Keenan (Mackenzie Cook), who idolizes Brent, exaggerates his own sense of power and importance by claiming to be assistant district manager, when his real title is assistant to the district manager; salesman Tim Canterbury (Martin Freeman) keeps telling himself this job is only temporary and that he's not buying in; and receptionist Dawn Tinsley (Lucy Davis) is engaged to be married to Lee, who works in the Wernham Hogg warehouse, and plows ahead with plans that have been set in motion, even though she and Tim are clearly in love and more suitable for each other.
Improvisational, inspired, ever-inventive, "The Office" is a definitive depiction of Desk World. Some people find it too real, and thus too painful to watch. Gervais, his co-creator Stephen Merchant, and the other actors use humor like a scalpel under the skin, slicing through to nick just the right nerves at the right moment, as when David delivers the downsizing decision from headquarters: "Well, there's good news and bad news. The bad news is that Neil will be taking over both branches, and some of you will lose your jobs. Those of you who are kept on will have to relocate to Swindon, if you want to stay. I know, gutting. On a more positive note, the good news is, I've been promoted, so... every cloud... You're still thinking about the bad news aren't you?" The American version on NBC with Steve Carell (and especially Rainn Wilson) is terrific, but it doesn't cut as deeply or precisely as the original.
Title: "How to Get Ahead in Advertising" (1989)
Company: Sullivan Bristol Advertising
Workplace: Thames office headquarters, London
Occupation: Advertising account executive
In the opening shot of this blistering satire of dog-eat-dog capitalism, the camera nervously, menacingly circles a darkened conference room during a slide presentation. Advertising executive Denis Dimbleby Bagley (Richard E. Grant, in a performance of such hysterical, manic rage as to out-do Jack Nicholson in "The Shining") prowls the room, working himself into a dizzily grandiloquent fit of (self-) loathing that's both majestic and messianic. He climaxes with a bilious eruption of disgust as he explains how advertising spins the Mobius strip of hope, guilt, desire and unmet satisfaction that keeps consumers consuming: "It's a vicious but quite wonderful circle, and it adheres to only one rule: Whatever it is, sell it!"
Creatively blocked while trying to come up with a campaign for a pimple cream, Bagley sprouts a talking boil on his neck, which develops into a profane and revolting subepidermal anti-Jiminy Cricket -- and, of course, sends him spiraling ever deeper into madness and impotent indignation against his profession. As Stanley Kubrick learned making "Dr. Strangelove" about the nuclear arms race, only a scabrous comedy could do justice to this subject -- buying and selling in a society based on an endless cycle of consumption, that is consuming itself, literally, to death.
Title: "Glengarry Glen Ross" (1992)
Company: Premiere Properties
Workplace: North Side Chicago office
Occupation: Real estate salesmen (Closers!)
Sales and advertising -- the cynical sleight-of-hand that keeps the smoke-and-mirrors, investment crapshoot economy churning and burning. Cast into the fiery furnace in the belly of the beast are the real estate salesmen of the North Chicago office of Premiere Properties (whose plots are anything but), men who will sell paltry chunks of real estate, and their souls, for a Cadillac Eldorado (gold!) or a set of steak knives -- anything but a pink slip. Because it's not only their livelihood at stake, it's their manhood. Director James Foley and writer David Mamet, adapting his own stage play, engrave a picture of hell on earth worthy of Gustave Doré, set in a room with shabby gray walls, cheap blinds and filing cabinets -- and the infernal red-green glow of the China Bowl bar and restaurant across the street. It's a tragedy and it's a farce, and this month's Sisyphean sales goals loom as ephemeral landmarks -- illusive and invariably as disappointing as the empty Florida or Arizona lots these sad sacks are trying to unload, in subdivisions with delusory names like "Mountain View," "Rio Rancho Estates" and "Glengarry Highlands."
There's enough star power here to light up the whole North Side: Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, Alec Baldwin, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey, Jonathan Pryce. But while the actors vocalize that Mamet dialogue with virtuosic, tempo-changing, percussive dexterity (think of the asymmetrical rhythms of Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, atonally rescored for bodies and voices), they are thoroughly convincing as ordinary, pressure-cooked, beat-down working stiffs. Spacey's memorably brief solo: "Will you go to lunch? Go to lunch. WILL you GO to LUNCH?!"
Title: "Modern Times" (1936)
Company: Elecro-Steel Corp.
Workplace: Factory floor
The opening titles play over a close-up of an enormous clock, nearing 6 o'clock -- but the first image is of a herd of sheep on the hoof, which dissolves into a crowd of people coming out of the subway, heading to work. And this is a comedy? Well, yes it is -- and one of Charlie Chaplin's best -- but its picture of industrial age dehumanization can be almost as painfully acute as "The Office." Drawing upon Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" and René Clair's "À Nous la Liberté," Chaplin depicts a regimented, micromanaged, clockwork world where human bodies are simply extensions of machinery, right down to "a practical device which automatically feeds your men while at work. Don't stop for lunch: be ahead of your competitor. The Billows Feeding Machine will eliminate the lunch hour, increase your production, and decrease your overhead." In the film's signature image, Chaplin actually passes through a gullet of gears, his flesh melding with the metalworks in a way David Cronenberg might well appreciate.
Title: "Time Out" (2001)
Vincent (Aurélien Recoing) has lost his job. He just hasn't told anybody about it -- including his wife. No film has ever quite captured the psychological devastation and humiliation of being out of work like this masterpiece by Laurent Cantet (whose "Human Resources" is a similarly gripping and moving account of the human toll of a factory strike). Sometimes we forget how tightly our sense of self and our own feelings about our worth are bound to our jobs, but Cantet hasn't.
Like a ghost stuck in his old routine (or the mall-shopping zombies in "Dawn of the Dead") Vincent continues to go through the motions of working without actually being employed. He visits an office building and finds a quiet corner where he can pretend that he belongs. Vincent has bills to pay and a shame and defeat. He tries to set up a few quick moneymaking schemes (or scams), and he continues to tell his wife, or anyone who asks, that he's holding down a job. But who is he fooling, and what does he really want? "Time Out" chillingly reveals how a job, as well as the lack of one, can become a form of slow, steady suicide.
Title: "Holiday" (1938)
Company: Father's bank
Workplace: Father's office, Manhattan, NY
Occupation: Potential son-in-law
Although "Holiday" doesn't actually take place in the office, that's the point -- it's the playful comedic flip-side of "Time Out." Cary Grant plays Johnny Case, an irrepressible and socially unconnected young man who's happily unemployed, taking time out to discover what he really wants to do with the future that stretches before him. He's already met the girl he's going to marry, Julia Seton (Doris Nolan), blissfully unaware that she is one of those Setons, the scion of a millionaire banking magnate. When, to Julia's mortification, he expresses reservations about entering indentured servitude in "Father's firm," he begins to discover that her sister Linda (Katharine Hepburn) is more sympatico. "Money is our god here," she says with bitter irreverence.
As Johnny tells her: "I've been working since I was 10. I want to find out why I'm working. The answer can't be just to pay bills or to pile up more money... I can't find that out sitting behind some desk in an office, so as soon as I get enough money together I'm gonna knock off for a while -- quit. I want to save part of my life for myself. There's a catch to it, though: It's got to be part of the young part. You know: retire young, work old -- come back and work when I know what I'm working for." I can't imagine a healthier attitude toward labor and life -- and the sparkling performances of Grant, Hepburn, and Lew Ayres as her alcoholic brother Ned, entombed by Father's fortune and expectations, make the movie breathe. "Holiday" is a cautionary tale. For people like Johnny and especially Ned (as well as for Vincent in "Time Out"), a life sentence of obligatory service in the "family business" may offer security, but it's also a living death.
Title: "Spring Forward" (2000)
Company: Stacy, Connecticut Parks & Recreation Dept.
Workplace: Public parks
It begins with the first day of work for a recently released ex-con, Paul (Liev Schreiber), and ends, a year later, with the retirement of his partner, mentor and friend Murph (Ned Beatty). What's remarkable about "Spring Forward" is that it consists, almost entirely, of on-the-job conversations between these two men who start out as strangers and wind up as close friends. Yes, it's a love story, but this isn't a New England "Brokeback Mountain" (also about a friendship forged over work); it's an eloquent depiction of a surrogate father and a surrogate son finding each other -- and proof that the human face, and good talk, are the most cinematic elements imaginable. And it doesn't hurt that you're watching two of the best actors on the planet in top form.
Murph assumes the role of Paul's plain-speaking blue-collar guru -- as in the scene where he tells him he should stop overcompensating for the sins of his past: "You don't owe me anything. OK? Nothin'. You and me, we're the same. That's it. If I lend you money, I tell you I want you to forget about it -- I want you to forget about it. I mean, you're starting to bug me a little bit that you're apologizing for this stuff all the time. Be who you are, say what you want, I can handle that, OK?" It may not look like much in print, but Beatty makes it sing, as natural and spontaneous and beautiful as the breeze on a summer afternoon.
Title: "Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy" (1996)
Company: Roritor Pharmaceuticals
Workplace: Roritor Labs, Roritor Tower
Occupation: Research & Development, Marketing
I once worked at a large company where everybody knew that the purpose of any meeting with the company president, no matter what its ostensible agenda, had but one unchanging, unspoken agenda: to allow the boss to demonstrate, to his own and everyone else's satisfaction, that he was the smartest person in the room. That's the way it is at Roritor, where employees from the top executives in the penthouse conference room to the lowliest research scientists in the subterranean labs quake at the ever-changing moods and whims of Don Roritor (Mark McKinney, doing a superb Lorne Michaels impression), the company's wryly pompous and megalomaniacal head.
The movie would be brilliant enough for its deadly observations of meeting dynamics, corporate toadying and presentational grandstanding (watch out for the heinous, self-infatuated marketing guy, Cisco) -- and you could put your DVD player on shuffle and hit a dizzyingly funny moment nine times out of 10. But the premise is also inspired: Roritor needs a new drug, discovers his scientists have been working on an as-yet-untested antidepressant, and rushes it to market under the name "Gleemonex," with the slogan: "Like it's 72 degrees in your head all the time!" Just one problem: After a while, the brains of Gleemonex users get stuck in a happy loop and they fall into comas. Should Dr. Chris Cooper (Kevin McDonald), the inventor of the drug, warn people by going to the media? "No," says Don. "No media."
Don: Chris, would you agree with me that Paris is the capital of
France? Would you agree with that?
Dr. Cooper: Uh, yes, Don.
Don: Good. Then we're back in agreement.
No matter how depressed your job gets you, Brain Candy is like a big ol' microwaved, vending machine slice of Happiness Pie.
Title: "American Splendor" (2003)
Company: Veteran's Administration Hospital
Workplace: Records -- Cleveland, Ohio
Occupation: File clerk
If you want to find the honest-to-goodness inspiration for idiosyncratic office characters like Milton in "Office Space" and Dwight in the NBC version of "The Office," you need look no further than Toby Radloff in "American Splendor," who painstakingly over-pronounces the immortal line, "I consider myself a nerd," with a long "a," and forms the word "nerd" as if he were saying it and swallowing it at the same time. You might think Judah Friedlander's performance as Toby is just too cartoonish... until the actual Toby appears on screen and you realize that, if anything, Friendlander is underplaying him.
Harvey Pekar (embodied by Paul Giamatti and by Harvey Pekar himself) is a Cleveland file clerk who becomes the Everyman hero of underground comics about his life, written by Harvey and drawn by his friend Robert Crumb and others. But pop-culture success and appearances on David Letterman don't boost him into any rarefied realm where he doesn't have to worry about working. Besides, some of his best stuff is based on people he knows at the V.A. hospital. "Yeah, sure, he gets lots of recognition for his writing now," says narrator Harvey, speaking of himself in the third person. "Sure, his comics are praised by all the important media types, telling people what to think. But so what? It's not like he makes a living at it like Bob Crumb. He can't go and quit his day job or nothing. Who am I kidding? Truth is, I'd be lost without my work routine." Cut to Harvey waking up in a panic, panting: "I gotta job... I gotta job..."
What film best captures work life? Write us at firstname.lastname@example.org... preferably during work hours.
Jim Emerson considers Johnny Case his role model. He has spent his working life in pursuit of three goals: not working in an office, not having to wear long pants or long-sleeved shirts and not having a "career." So far, he has been reasonably successful in these respects. He is currently the editor of RogerEbert.com and publishes an associated blog called Scanners, home of the Opening Shots Project. He dedicates this article to Kathleen Murphy and Judy Tolliver, who just quit their jobs to follow their respective blisses.