Slacker Fest: Office Space
First stop in our tour of the Slacker movie genre
Welcome to Slacker Fest, where we document our research and analysis of mass media’s “slacker” archetype, part of our effort to broaden the genre with a slacker film of our own. Find our master list of entries here.
Office Space is not technically the OG slacker film, and probably not the best one. But it feels like the right one to start with, as it’s the most influential and meme’d movie about work disaffection (Elon Musk used it to dunk on an ex-employee, forgetting that the movie is a parody of people like him). And people who’ve never seen it recognize its iconic printer destruction scene.
If you can get past it’s 90s-ness (paper-thin female character, weird sexual moralizing, etc.), you have to appreciate its staying power in our culture. Besides, legend has it that it single-handedly destroyed TGIFriday’s flair requirement for its employees. So we owe it at least that bit of gratitude.
Release year: 1999
Premise: Left in a blissful state after his hypnotherapist dies mid-session, a corporate drone refuses to continue working.
Auteur: Mike Judge (based on cartoon short, Milton)
- Peter Gibbons, the slacker
- Bill Lumbergh, the dickhead boss
- Joanna, the chain-restaurant waitress / love interest
- Michael Bolton, Peter’s rap-loving sidekick
- Samir Nagheenanajar, Peter’s talented, hard-working sidekick
- Lawrence, Peter’s construction worker neighbor
- Tom Smykowski, the obsolete colleague-turned-medical-lawsuit-plaintiff
- Milton Waddams, the office weirdo/arsonist
Meet the slacker: Peter Gibbons
Peter, a disaffected and apathetic programmer at a dysfunctional tech firm (“every day is the worst day of my life, so today you are witnessing my worst day,” he tells his couples shrink, who can only answer “whoa, that’s messed up”). He finally snaps after a botched hypnosis session with said shrink and starts blowing off his job without regard for getting fired.
He's not special in his disaffection, as virtually all his peers are just as miserable at the job. Everyone dreams of striking overnight fortune so that they never have to work again, whether through ingenuity (“Like that guy that invented the Pet Rock…the guy made a million dollars!”) or lucking into a juicy medical settlement.
It’s worth mentioning that, despite everyone’s alienation, they still harbor a vigorously American disdain for those who don’t work and aren’t rich. Ten minutes into the movie, the company is already getting ready to do layoffs, and one of Pete’s colleagues says, “I don’t want to stand in the unemployment line with these scumbags,” a sentiment that goes unchallenged for the rest of the film.
What does our slacker want and what’s in the way? (defining desire vs. opposing force)
What sets Pete apart from his fellow salary drones is that he’s open about his desires to, in his own words, “do nothing.” And of course, that he puts his feelings into inaction. However, eventually it becomes clear that his deeper desire is to exact revenge on his company for treating his buddies unfairly (while also stealing himself enough wealth to do nothing).
What gets in the way is the dysfunctional culture of his company, specifically embodied by his boss Bill Lumbergh. He’s probably the most meme’d character from the movie, essentially the internet face of incompetent, insensitive, passive-aggressive bosses.
How does the film define a “slacker” in broader terms (and could anyone other than a white dude pull it off)?
The film is narrow in this regard, stopping at the prototypical corporate office park chump at the mercy of bosses who’ve grinded him down to a husk of himself. 1999 was a BIG year for this character archetype, with Fight Club and American Beauty also coming out that year. If these films didn’t invent it, they at least deeply carved it into our popular conscience.
Beyond that archetype, Office Space’s sense of a slacker doesn’t extend to blue collar workers, for example. It casts Pete’s construction worker neighbor as an unburdened, natural laborer who likes his existence, while Pete himself ends up at the same job as fantasy-fulfilment of true “honest” work. The movie doesn’t entertain the possibility that construction workers suffer even worse abuses—not to mention probably heatstroke given the movie takes place in Texas.
There are other minor non-white-corporate-dude characters who you could say “dabble” in slacking, but they remain restrained. Jennifer Anniston plays Joanna, a waitress who, despite quitting on her dickhead boss, serves as the voice of responsibility for Peter. Samir, Pete’s Indian coworker, is convinced to carry out a white-collar crime, sure. But he’s driven and hard-working even in executing it.
If either Joana or Samir pulled what Pete pulled, with the same nonchalant attitude, they would have been fired within the day. Especially Samir, whose consultant-executioners made fun of his name while selecting him to be laid off.
Does the film “approve” of slacking? Is it a broader anti-job statement?
I don’t think so. It obviously shows us slackers through an empathetic lens and uses their lashing out as a cathartic warning about the decay of our working culture. But it morphs into a morality tale against trying to skirt work. If it wasn’t for the deus-ex-machina ending where Milton sets the place on fire, Pete and friends would’ve been punished for trying to get retribution from their employer and cheat the system.
It’s almost as if the movie’s telling us: “I’m letting these guys off because this is a comedy, but don’t try this at home.” For all the anger that drove the film, in the end it takes most of it out on the poor printer and leaves the rest of the system untouched.
What does the film see as “the enemy” in broader terms?
Instead of our work culture per se, the real enemy here is broken meritocracies that don’t reward participants fairly. Workplaces where performative do-nothings like Lumbergh (and, ironically, Pete himself after he starts slacking) get promotions while hard-working people who play by the rules get fired or exiled to the basement.
As the ending implies, if we can fix or destroy these dysfunctional workplaces, one can find fulfillment through the right job.
Walt Wiltman’s favorite line
Gary Vee’s work-humper take
“The moment I knew these guys were losers is when they managed to FUCK UP the virus that was gonna funnel the company’s money their way. All that crying and whining, and they didn’t even have the HUSTLE to double-check their code? I mean, COME ON. Your dream isn’t worth shit if you’re not FIRED UP about the financial fraud you’re committing to seize it. NO DAYS OFF: you must EAT, DRINK, AND BREATHE THE FRAUD.”
Are there any slacker-like innovations in the technique of the film itself?
Plot / Setting
Cinematography / Camera use / Color
Editing / Pacing
Sound / Music
Not much about this movie is unconventional in a technical sense. I noticed visual motifs here and there that played with the drab repetitiveness of an office, though that’s been done for decades. The color palate was bright and cheerful given the subject matter, presumably to make the movie work as a comedy.
The one exception is the heavy use of aggressive gangster rap in the soundtrack to contrast with the stilted, passive, undignified niceties that Pete and his friends had to contort themselves into as part of their day-to-day. That move feels overdone today, but Office Space is the first massively distributed instance of the technique that I can remember.
What would I want to keep for our slacker film? What do I want to leave behind or improve?
There’s not much I want to keep, and I mean that as a compliment of sorts—Office Space has been so thoroughly influential that everything about it has become basic-level “day one” stuff.
In the spirit of building on the foundation it laid, I’d like to critique our work culture more directly, not just dysfunctional workplaces as aberrations of an otherwise fine system.
It’s disappointing that Peter’s most interesting feature, his desire to “do nothing,” turns out to be inconsequential and doesn’t get further explored by the film. It would have been interesting to see him struggle with holding that desire while everyone around him condemned it, but I get that it would have been too heady for this movie, destroying its box office appeal.
Luckily, we have no such aspirations for our film, and I have no issue sacrificing any (already low) chance at commercial viability to be more iconoclastic.
Next entry: Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke
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