Thursday 5 September 2013

Two films about offices: Glenngary Glen Ross (1992) & Office Space (1999)

Shelley Levene finally gets his groove on.

'Glengarry Glen Ross' (1992)

A few years ago a person I often meet directed an excellent production of 'Glengarry Glen Ross' for The Company, a small but consistently entertaining amateur dramatics troupe.  The play was very different to their usual array of classics, swashbucklers and European tragedies, and very much swearier, so it was a strange delight to see some of their best actors, most of whom I've seen in a dozen other roles, spewing forth David Mamet's uncompromisingly aggressive dialogue.

It's a very good play, and I was advised at the time to seek out the film; since 1992 was one of my few remaining gaps in the 90s I seized the opportunity to watch it here.  For one thing, I wanted to see how a play set entirely in one room of an office could work as a motion-picture - and for another, it's a strong drama and worth the rewatching.

The result is very talky, with very sparse, if welcome, use of music.  It's set in and around the office, with dialogue scenes moved out to cars, to a cafe, to rain-battered streets.  As consolation for a relative lack of visual diversity we're given an array of excellent performances from the likes of Al Pacino, Alec Baldwin and Kevin Spacey.  These are actors who can sell incessant invective and descent into despair, and Jack Lemmon was rightly awarded for his performance as Shelley 'The Machine' Levene, crumpled and pathetic whenever he's being himself, but able to turn on that magic old charm as soon as he's talking to a customer.

It's the eighties nineties, by which I mean this is still the age of the yuppie, of eighties style and sound, greys and browns over colours.  The story regards real-estate agents selling bad properties to bad customers, each of them under threat of the sack if they fail to come out on top.  Unemployment is the worst thing that can happen.  That makes it sound like a rather trivial threat, but these are people who have nothing but the job, whose lives will fall apart if they can't bring in the money, by whatever means.

It's an extremely tense watch, with a rising anxiety and pressure, and it was a relief when it was all over.  It's well-made and well-acted, but I couldn't help wondering whether something so dialogue-led was really a good use of a visual medium.  I preferred watching it on stage, but it was a very good production.

Jennifer Aniston in 'Office Space'.  She doesn't work in an office but still isn't happy.

'Office Space' (1999)

That we might lighten the mood after the difficult watch that was 'Glengarry Glen Ross' and make a double-bill of nineties pictures about miserable workers who look to crime as a last resort, Saskia ventured that we watch 'Office Space'.  This was certainly the pudding of the two films.  The office here is just awful, but at least it's comically so, and we're given a reassuring hint that, if the worst comes to the worst, we might be happier in a non-office job.

Office Space is blessed with moderately likable characters, with Jennifer Aniston as Joanna, a waitress urged by her employer to show customers that she enjoys her work, and enjoys it in an extremely regimented fashion; and Ron Livingston as Peter, who works in the eponymous office and is hypnotised into losing his overwhelming stress, causing him to saunter through his hellish life being casual and honest in ways which ought to be sackable offences.

While 'Glengarry Glen Ross' was a work of moral complexity and anguish, wherein every character was being cruel to somebody, even if just to their potential customers, 'Office Space' has a clear and booable villain: Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole) is everything one could hope to despise in a cheery young manager, and even merits his own Wikipedia page, an honour currently reserved for only the most iconic movie characters.  The only other character who really leaps out of the film is Milton Waddams (Stephen Root), an intense and learning-disabled office-worker acted with the same extreme gusto that made Mickey Rooney's 'hilarious' Chinaman in 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' (1961) quite so monstrously offensive.

It was a curious double-bill, like following 'The Elephant Man' (1980) with 'Dumbo' (1941), but it seemed to work.  I'm left extremely glad I don't work in an office.  If you do, why not quit today?

P.S. I suggested watching 'Glengarry Glen Ross' without giving any clue to its contents.  Later, asking Saskia quite what she had expected of the film, she described 'Brigadoon' (1954).

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