Mike Judge, the creator of ”Beavis and Butt-head” and (with Greg Daniels) ”King of the Hill,” has a wit that stings with the hostile gusto of a ruler rapping your knuckles. ”Office Space,” the corporate satire he wrote and directed, is his first foray into live action, but any fan of Judge’s cartoons will instantly recognize his jaunty tone of disjunctive misanthropy — the dead-zone conversational pauses, the spasms of stifled rage, the voices of authority (they could be your teacher, your neighbor, your boss) booming out with granite will. In Judge’s world, we’re all in our private traps. Beavis and Butt-head, at least, had their MTV. The characters in ”Office Space,” by contrast, are twentysomething white-collar droids who exist in a benumbed state of pencil-pushing, keyboard-tapping slavery.
They work at a place called Initech, a world of endlessly updated memos and malfunctioning copy machines, of forced fluorescent jollity (”Friday is Hawaiian shirt day!”). The whole horror show is presided over by a fascist supervisor in suspenders (Gary Cole, the brilliant saturnine joker from the ”Brady Bunch” movies), who issues an order to work over the weekend in the smoothly upbeat tones of a neighborhood dad recruiting Little League volunteers. The added job time isn’t just for the sake of efficiency; it’s the supervisor’s way of proving that the company owns your life. Scarier still is the portly assistant who issues a pouting ”Somebody’s got a case of the Mondays!” In this world, even the ”comic relief” is prefab, programmed — a mock ironic contrivance.
Unfortunately, that describes the movie as well. ”Office Spac”e was spun out of Judge’s ”Milton” shorts that aired on ”Saturday Night Live.” The movie throws off nasty shards of vitality in its first half hour, when Judge is setting the scene, doing pinpoint riffs on corporate manners; it’s like ”Dilbert” rewritten by Kafka. But the hero, Peter (Ron Livingston), turns out to be a dullard, and there’s not enough going on in his relationships with his two comrades, the genial Samir (Ajay Naidu) and an infuriated nerd cursed with the name Michael Bolton (David Herman).
Peter, whose job is to update software, tells an efficiency expert (John C. McGinley) how much he loathes his occupation, and his fearless declaration of Not Giving a Damn ends up winning him a promotion. Instead of taking the opportunity to push the film into the corridors of power, though, Judge concocts a tepid old-style revenge plot in which his three worker rebels attempt to rip off the company. Even Peter’s romance with a waitress (Jennifer Aniston), who has amusing corporate headaches of her own (she doesn’t sport an enthusiastic-enough amount of ”flare” on her uniform), dwindles into a clichéd fit of petty jealousy. ”Office Space” feels cramped and underimagined. I think Judge is capable of making an inspired live-action comedy, but next time he’ll have to remember to do what he does in his animated ones — keep the madness popping.