Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Watch it, Lumbergh's coming

Some movies get it so right. Office Space does, but you only know that if you've lived it. Students often rate this as one of their favorites, but I always wonder what they like about it. The leading man -- Ron Livingston, also of Sex & the City -- is handsome but flawed in that puppydog way that's sexy as hell. The script, by King of the Hill creator Mike Judge, who also directed, is smart and funny. But the subject -- that special ring of hell where underpaid employees stare at computers in gray cubicles and the smarmy, overpaid boss wants everyone to come in on Saturdays -- is so specific to that environment that you can really get it only if you've been there. Most college-age folk just haven't been there yet. The only one I ever met who had was a kid who supplemented his scholarships by working the lobster shift shuffling papers at Comcast cable, a job I imagine is only a few ticks higher on the soul-suck scale to serving as a guard at Gitmo.

Oh, yes, I've been in those office spaces, my friends. After college, I temped for several years, clocking in 8 to 5 at Mobil Oil, Republic Bank, Dresser Industries, USAA, Rockwell and finally Hearst Publishing, where I got my first taste of the magazine business and thus began what would become my real career.

Companies became cubicle farms in the 1980s. When the ugly plastic walls went up, relations among employees disintegrated.

At J.C. Penney headquarters in Plano, where I was hired by the hour as a technical writer for employee manuals, I had a boss who hated cubicle-to-cubicle conversation so much that she banned it altogether. If you wanted to talk to a co-worker, you had to wave a little yellow flag above your cubicle and ask permission. It was like Cool Hand Luke: Talkin' it up here, boss!

No one had a red stapler there (a piece of deskware that plays a central role in Office Space), but there were skirmishes over access to the locked-up photocopier and fax machines and I seem to recall that bathroom breaks were strictly monitored. At Christmas, the boss lady, who used the phrase "and/or" between every two or three words in a sentence, called our department into the conference room for a "party." We dreary few took our seats around the big table and waited for the celebration to commence. Boss lady ripped open a cellophane bag of unshelled peanuts, tossed it onto the center of the table and said, "Happy holidays, everyone."

With only a few exceptions, corporate America is Office Space to the power of 10. It could be an insurance company, a PR agency or a daily newspaper newsroom. Wherever you go, there's a Lumbergh (the ghastly supervisor in the movie, played to perfection by Gary Cole) and a little group of employees fantasizing about a palace rebellion. The soup in the company cafeteria tastes like dishwater. The air vents above the desks spit mysterious black fibers that surely will cause lung tumors. And every week begins with a cheerful receptionst in a flowered polyester blouse chirping, "Looks like you've got a case of the Mondays!"

What movies do you think get it right? Is The Paper Chase the best flick about law school? Did Mean Girls define high school in the 21st century? Tell me your picks and your reasons and I'll post them.

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