There was a post over on Base Free about "Office Space", a movie that has also been occupying my own thoughts recently. I envy Base Free's newfound wonder at the film, for my cynical eyes no longer see only ass-clown-related delight and joy. Rather, "Office Space" represents a number of interesting phenomena about art and modern life.
The Phenomenon of the Overrated-Underrated:
"Office Space" was a modest theatrical success, earning about $10 million, but really earned its fame and cult classic status on video. There seem to be a fair percentage of films that enjoy new life in rental/DVD arena, but by and large, the reputation of the success of a film is based on its box office gross. Most people who have seen "Office Space" have done so on video, and have done so thinking that what they were seeing is an overlooked, under-appreciated classic.
Thus, the appeal is twofold. There's the genuine appreciation for the novelty and humor of the film, but also the feeling of specialness, of being part of the small group that's in the know. Poet and philosopher John McCrea summarized such a feeling as proving "you were there, that you heard of them first."
Such is the phenomenon of the Overrated-Underrated. First, a person, band or work of art is under-appreciated, as with the comparatively small box office gross of "Office Space." Then, there's discovery, and subsequent fame as an underrated work, as hip folks celebrate the quality along with the unknownness, which basically cancels out its earlier underrating. Finally, there's the point where so many people have called it a "hidden gem" or "the best ____ you've never heard of" that it paradoxically becomes an Overrated-Underrated work.
Other examples of the Overrated-Underrated:
The Oakland Athletics - They've been underdogs for nearly four years now, and have made the playoffs all of those years. Still, writers continually act as if they've discovered a team the rest of the public is ignoring, supposedly because they have a low payroll, or play on the West Coast.
Janeane Garofalo, circa 1999 - I heard many people not only compliment her comedy, but also insist on how beautiful she was, and how no one else seemed to realize that. I think Sarah Silverman has inherited the Overrated-Underrated comedienne/indie sex symbol title.
James K. Polk - Immortalized in a They Might Be Giants song, our 11th president gets a lot of props for keeping campaign promises, and only serving one term. Ignored in his time, and over-celebrated now, no one seems to acknowledge that he basically stole a bunch of land from Mexico, and served only one term because he died a few months after he left office.
A further extrapolation of this concept comes in the form of the Underrated-Overrated-Underrated, where the backlash against the Overrated-Underrated is so severe as to make the band/person/work of art underrated again. This is rare, but examples can be seen with New York Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter, cigarette smoking, burritos from Los Panchos in Pacheco, overalls on girls, and the Stone Temple Pilots' seminal album, Purple.
Laughing At Yourself, Not With Yourself:
I have a roommate who works at a tech company. For the purposes of anonymity, I will call him "Mac". Mac says that people in his office are constantly quoting "Office Space", which, since "Office Space" is a satire of tech company life. Unfortunately, it seems like a lot of this quoting is like a celebration of misery. When employees who have to do the thankless work of TPS reports, joke about TPS reports, it's a little sad. When Mac's boss comes up behind him and begins doing the Gary Cole-esque, "Y-y-yeah" intro to some sort of crappy managerial request, it's not really funny, because the guy really is a manager, and even though he's doing a parody of a soulless middle manager, he still really is a soulless middle manager. "Dilbert" isn't really funny if you are Dilbert.
Also, it doesn't work both ways. Mac can't ditch work for days at a time and say, by way of explanation, "Look, dude, haven't you seen 'Office Space'?" The manager can make his crappy, office misery-stereotype-perpetuating joke, but Mac can't, say, burn down the building as a wacky movie reference. The office drones get to laugh at themselves, but are they laughing with themselves?
Backing Off At The End
Ultimately, what happens at the end of "Office Space"? Michael Bolton and the Indian dude keep their jobs at Initech. Society still doesn't approve of the hero's work-ditching and embezzling ways, and he ends up taking a job doing manual labor. It's one of a series of anti-establishment 90's movies that backs down from their socially-destructive ideas in the last act.
"Fight Club": Hey, pissing in people's soup and smashing up the local Starbucks is cool, but blowing up the corporate offices of credit card companies? Without a doubt, that's a fairly imbalanced mind at work.
"American Beauty": Hey, quitting your job, smoking weed, flipping burgers and fucking your daughter's 17 year-old friend is cool, but not if she's a virgin.
We will only accept so much anarchy in our movies. Which is not to take anything away from the strong elements of "Office Space", particularly the performance of Stephen Root and the lecture about "flair". I just think the film is a little bit overrated. Or, more accurately, a little bit overrated-underrated.