'Uh, great, yeah, listen . . . '
Heard of Mike Judge's latest hit? No? You will, writes John Patterson in Los Angeles
Not a lot of good things came out of the late-1990s dotcom bubble. Nerdy paper millionaires became toilet-paper minus-millionaires overnight, relocating with alarming suddenness from the mansion on the hill to their old bedroom at mom's house.
Porsches, ski lodges, condominiums and trophy brides bought at the top of the market were sold off for next to nothing. And all that was left standing was a little movie that had been fatally undervalued by everyone, including its own writer- director and the studio that paid for it.
In the years since its 1999 release, when it barely recouped its minuscule $10 million budget before being booted from the multiplexes, Mike Judge's Office Space has seen its stock rise through the roof. But it hasn't been talked up by pundits or critics, most of whom blinked and missed it four years ago. Office Space has become a hit on the sly, a fans' favourite whose reputation has spread across the Internet and by word of mouth.
More than 2.6 million copies have been sold on video and DVD, and the cable channel Comedy Central has run it more than 30 times, making it awfully hard to miss. Many fans have seen it 20 or 30 times (I'm only up to 10), and the more committed quote it like Monty Python. Its sales figures rival those of There's Something About Mary and make it one of Fox Home Entertainment's top-20 hits.
Nobody was more surprised than Fox to find it had a genuine prairie-fire mega-seller on its hands, and one it had forgotten about. Judge has admitted: "There was a while there where I thought, man, I made a real turd of a movie." Instead he has a third, albeit belated, hit on his hands to stand alongside his epoch-making animated TV shows Beavis And Butt-head and the sublime King Of The Hill.
Now Office Space is finally getting a DVD release. It focuses on a group of college-educated digital peons at the Initech Corporation, a soulless, single-storey big-box building in an unnamed town of depressing newness and blandness. Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) crunches data for his creepy boss Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole, the one you'll be quoting), who starts his every excruciating, slow- motion sentence with the words: "Uh, great, yeah, listen, I'm gonna have to go ahead and ask you to . . ." Usually the sentence ends with the words: "Come in on Saturday. Oh, and on Sunday, too."
Pressured by his uptight girlfriend to attend relationship-repair hypnotherapy, Peter begs the hypnotist to help him to "come home from work thinking I've been fishing all day". The doctor has a massive heart attack and dies before he wakes Peter up. When he returns to the office Peter finds that not giving a damn about his job - showing up at 2 p.m. in jeans and flip-flops, gutting catfish at his work station, destroying his cubicle, ignoring Lumbergh totally and admitting frankly: "It's not that I'm lazy, it's that I just don't care" - suddenly puts him on the fast track to promotion and executive success.
Plotwise, that's about it. Office Space works not so much through storyline as through the steady accretion of perfect details, painstakingly assembled for maximum recognition and familiarity. There's Dave Herman's character Michael Bolton ("Why should I change my name? He's the one who sucks!"), an angry white gangsta-rap fan with a grudge against the office's mockingly recalcitrant fax-copier ("They're just lucky I'm not armed!").
Everyone who's ever worked for a corporation will feel the chill of recognition: Hawaiian-shirt Fridays, miserable gatherings where the whole office mournfully sings Happy Birthday to a boss they despise, parking-space wars, identification cards, swipe cards, moronic corporate pep rallies, performance evaluations, telephonists who bleat the company greeting hundreds of times a day, blame delegation and the upwards redistribution of all initiative and decision-making power. The richness and density of the detail alone account for all those multiple viewings and quotation marathons.
This may be one of the reasons Office Space didn't succeed on its first release. It's not designed to function in the one-off, opening-weekend culture of Hollywood. It needed an old-style graduated release, such as made the equally rich and quotable Diner a hit in 1982. Only after it's lingered in the head for a few days does one realise how insidious and clever it is. I expect to get as much from my 11th viewing as I did from my first.
I think this also applies to King Of The Hill, whose animated palette allowed Judge and his co-creator, the former Simpsons producer Greg Daniels, to create an entire small-town Texas universe, one of immense detail, social precision and satirical brilliance, instead of the budget-constrained, live-action goldfish-bowl world of Office Space.
In America King Of The Hill is still a Fox TV hit, but across the Atlantic it seems to have drifted out of sight. It's one of the few US TV shows that avoid the two coasts and concentrate on "Flyover America", in this case west Texas small-towners who believe in God, high-school football, barbecue cuisine, backyard auto repair, the Dallas Cowboys and honest-to-God Republicanism.
Despite emerging from the crucible of Governor George W Bush's far-right stewardship of the great republic of Texas, King Of The Hill mines the comedy in small-c conservatism without being conservative itself. When Hank encounters Dubya, whom he admires, at a 2000 election rally he's appalled to discover his candidate has a wet-fish handshake.
As with Office Space, Mike Judge spends a statistically remarkable percentage of his time hitting social and political nails smartly on the head. I'm not sure I'd like to live in Judge's America, but I sho-nuff love watching it on my TV. Get ready to rent and rent and rent, y'all!
- Guardian service
Office Space is due to be released on DVD on September 29th