Good writers of all kinds rely, I believe, on extremely basic observations about human nature. One of the things Mike Judge has noticed is that people -- especially if they happen to be American males -- have a deep-rooted desire to hang out and pretty much do nothing. What is Judge's "Beavis and Butt-head," after all, except a show about two guys doing nothing, aimed at an audience largely composed of guys doing nothing? His next animated show, the far more sweet-tempered "King of the Hill," appears to be about a family that often actually does things. But as much as fate and circumstances force propane salesman Hank Hill to participate in adult life, no viewer of the show would deny that Hank, in his heart, is like the embattled cubicle inmate Peter Gibbons of "Office Space" -- a man with a "dream of doing nothing."
Maybe the most startling thing about Judge's first live-action movie (he of course directed the marvelously psychedelic animated feature "Beavis and Butt-head Do America") is how effortless it seems. His satiric vision is as sharp as ever: In the first scene we watch a white guy stuck in traffic, popping and flowing with the gangsta lyrics pumping from his stereo, then nervously rolling up his windows and locking his door as a black flower vendor approaches. So is his ear for the monotonous, petty absurdities of life under capitalism: Within five minutes of Peter's arrival at the sprawling suburban offices of Initech, the woman two cubicles away has chirped, "Corporate accounts payable, Nina speaking" at least a dozen times.
But "Office Space" doesn't depend solely on its gags or its near-perfect parodic pitch, as hilarious as those are. Its plot may be a standard-issue office drone's revenge fantasy, but its characters and its nowheresville setting are uncannily realized. ("Office Space" is loosely based on Judge's "Milton" shorts for "Saturday Night Live.") It's not a cartoon in any sense, but an honest-to-God movie with some fine, understated acting and a human heart. Its finest moment, not surprisingly, is a particularly anarchic celebration of doing nothing. When Peter and two other rebellious Initech employees get drunk, haul their hated copy machine out into a field and smash the damn thing to bits, the result is pure, electric cinema, as headlong and wordlessly giddy as anything in Godard and a hell of a lot easier to understand.
We never learn exactly what Initech is or what clean-cut everyguy Peter (Ron Livingston) and his friends do there, except that it's somewhere in Texas and has something to do with bank software. Who cares, anyway? The point of "Office Space" is that none of us actually want to spend our time in anonymous, soul-crushing environments, constantly being told we put the wrong cover sheets on our reports or chided for having "a bad case of the Mondays." Many of us, however, don't have other realistic choices, and so the idea of doing almost anything else -- or nothing whatever -- looms like a vision of paradise. Peter's persecuted colleagues include Michael Bolton (David Herman), the rap fan from the first scene whose unfortunate name provides him with limitless opportunities for humiliation and bitterness; Samir (Ajay Naidu), whose surname no one at the company can pronounce; Tom (Richard Riehle), a 50ish functionary who lives in constant -- and justified -- terror of being downsized; and the fateful Milton (Stephen Root), an impossibly nerdy misfit who is storing up an endless list of grievances behind his Coke-bottle glasses and permanent shaving rash.
When he can escape from his unctuous boss, played with creepy accuracy by Gary Cole in gold-rimmed aviator glasses, a ski-resort tan and a contrasting-collar dress shirt, Peter goes home to a brand new apartment complex so shoddily built that he and his redneck neighbor Seymour (Diedrich Bader) can have conversations through the walls. He has a girlfriend he doesn't really like and spends his breaks brooding in a mall restaurant called Tchotchke's (where the specials include something called "extreme fajitas") fantasizing about a waitress named Joanna (Jennifer Aniston). Judge's script doesn't give Aniston a whole lot to do in this role, but at least she's nowhere near an airhead sex-symbol stereotype. She's entirely believable as an appealing if rather harried young woman trying to make the best of a crappy service-sector job where she's required to wear at least 15 jokey accessories, or "pieces of flair," on her uniform.
When a hypnotherapist's mishap gives Peter an unexpected jolt of confidence, the plot -- an admittedly threadbare merger of "Beavis and Butt-head" with "Dilbert" -- kicks into gear. Peter dumps his girlfriend, asks Joanna to have lunch with him at the restaurant next to hers ("Do you mean Chili's or Flinger's?" she asks) and begins scrupulously ignoring his job, marching blithely in whenever he feels like it to play Tetris or clean the fish he caught earlier that day. This is great as far as it goes, but a pair of evil consultants (one of them the always excellent character actor John C. McGinley) admire his independent spirit so much they decide to promote Peter and fire his pals Samir and Michael Bolton (after determining that he's not related to the real Michael Bolton). From there we lurch into a computer-virus conspiracy that teaches us the dictionary definition of money laundering, provokes Joanna into telling Peter, "You're just this penny-stealing, wannabe-criminal man" and introduces the specter of a lengthy sentence in "Federal Pound-Me-in-the-Ass Prison."
"Office Space" isn't quite the demented, overimaginative comedy that Wes Anderson's "Rushmore" is, but in some ways I liked it better. Anderson's bizarre '60s-cum-'90s amped-up Holden Caulfield universe is entirely his own invention, while Judge is a social satirist making a political and even moral point, and his world is an only slightly exaggerated version of our own. (If you're guessing that the long-abused Milton will get his reward before he goes to heaven, you're on the right page of Judge's script.) In one of these movies, a guy's dream that he can do everything is defeated; in the other, a guy's dream of doing nothing is fulfilled, and it turns out not to be enough. Both of these stories are about growing up, and the logical question for both of these talented young filmmakers is, what happens after that?