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Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) is unhappy at his desk job updating bank software for the switch to the new millennium. He admits he mostly just sits and stares at his desk, frustrated and disillusioned with his life. Worse though is his boss, vice president, Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole), a self-centered, oblivious company man who thinks he’s on the same page with his workers, but is universally loathed for his empty gestures and insensitive attitude. He often roams about the cubicles with his jacket off, fondling his mug, leaning on things while smugly giving directions. One day, he stops by to see Peter, lays an salmon-colored shirt sleeved arm on the cubicle wall and mentions that he has a small problem. It seems Peter forgot to put one of the new coversheets on the TPS (Testing Procedure Specification) reports and Bill really wants to make sure Peter understands the new policy. Peter admits he forgot but the report hasn’t shipped so he has time, but Lumbergh really isn’t listening and repeats what he just said anyway and asks if Peter saw the memo, to which Peter says, yes, even showing his boss the copy, but Lumbergh still isn’t listening and promises to get another memo to Peter right away. Frustrated, Peter recoils but it’s not long after that Dom Portwood (Joe Bays), another of Gibbon’s supervisors arrives and give him the same speech. This is Peter’s life.
Written and directed by Mike Judge, this moment, like much of the film, is a scathing satirical jab at modern office jobs and the people in charge who simply don’t get what it’s like to be down in the trenches. Judge, who earned a degree in physics and worked as a programmer, despised the office workplace, it’s mentality and politics. Here, he eviscerates the cubicle culture, skewering the process, the monotony, the people and the soul-sucking leadership. What works so well is the familiarity of it all. Nothing is dramatized or given the Hollywood idealized dressing. This feels like a real office and these people like actual office staff. That atmosphere gives the movies a lot of authenticity, making the characters and the situations more believable.
Peter is the core of it all, the innocent slowly being smothered by the ordeal. We identify with him and he carries us through these early stages, giving us a tour of the hell he works in. Livingston is a great choice for the role, creating a mild and soft-spoken, easy-going character who shoulders the burden of being mediocre like a transatlantic ship’s anchor. He exists and that’s it, beaten down by the career he thought would far different. But it’s Lumbergh, perfectly captured by Cole, that makes this moment, and in fact, every moment he is in, so refreshingly on target. What could have been an easy target, and a wildly over-the-top stereotype that we’ve seen so many times before in office comedies, is instead a wholly believable person who feels like he could be a real boss. Cole does it right by not overplaying it, keeping him subdued and a little arrogant, callous but not mean. He speaks like a man in his position would, and those subtle annoying mannerisms make him eccentric but not outlandish. Dressed in a clothes more suitable for a New York City corporate law firm than a middle management job, Lumbergh believes himself the big fish, and swims about the office nibbling at the little fishes with zeal. He still wears his university ring like it’s a professional championship sports win.
The reason this moment has lasted so long and become so cherished is its timelessness. The company and the business don’t really matter. What does is the inanity of it: the TPS reports, the memos, the condescending bosses and the sheer redundancy of it all. This is the life of the modern office worker. But even more affecting is Lumbergh, a walking, talking metaphor for the corporate way of life but one so well conceived and performed, he has come to be any and all bosses, an allegorical figure that stands in for anyone in charge. A classic moment.
Ron Livingston, Jennifer Aniston, Gary Cole