Much of the humor in “Office Space” humor comes from the same place as “Beavis and Butthead,” especially the duo’s big screen episode, “Beavis and Butthead Do America.” Watching the interplay between socially retarded morons and exasperated individuals with common sense is funny; it’s the foundation for much of Judge’s comedy.
In “Beavis and Butthead”, the audience is rooting for the socially retarded morons. The titular characters are our heroes and we love it when they play frog baseball. The hero in “Office Space” is Peter (Ron Livingston), a fairly average guy hassled by socially retarded morons like his boss, Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole). Mike Judge excels at capturing familiar social situations on film to highlight their absurdities. This is why so much of “Beavis and Butthead Do America” feels dated, why “Office Space” is an enduring classic and why Judge’s third major film, “Idiocracy,” failed so spectacularly.
It’s hard to sympathize with “Idiocracy”’s Joe (Luke Wilson). Unlike Peter, Joe isn’t lazy and apathetic because of the dreariness of his environment and a lack of direction early in life. Joe is merely a victim of society, his surroundings. “Idiocracy” is built on the premise that Western civilization itself values sloth and stupidity over ambition, and its principal characters are just one link in the chain that leads to the ruined future of morons. Joe’s catharsis comes from necessity, whereas “Office Space” hero Peter makes a conscious decision to grow up.
This gets to the heart of who Mike Judge is as a filmmaker. His stories are carefully balanced constructs, teetering between absurdity and irony, and he’s just plain better at irony. The success of “Office Space” as a film is pinned to its realism in the same way that the failure of “Idiocracy” is pinned to its outlandish premise.
This is why I’m so excited to see “Extract.” Its similarity to “Office Space” in subject aside, it’s the shift back to a more measured tone that makes it so promising. When Judge lays off the slapstick and chucks the fantasy, you’re guaranteed something special.