Study hard at college, land a decent-paying job as a computer programmer and enjoy the benefits of white-collar work and the accompanying creature comforts. When you're sick of cubicle hell, throw it all away for the slumming pleasures of manual labor and hope the new boss isn't the same as the old boss.
That's the rather nonsensical moral to the story of "Office Space," the dunderheaded if often riotously funny live-action debut from Texan animator Mike Judge, creator of television's "Beavis and Butt-head" and "King of the Hill."
The writer and director of box-office smash "Beavis and Butt-head Do America" has turned in a watchable diversion that's long on smart laughs but notably short on narrative drive. Halfway through, the movie loses direction and, like it's protagonist, simply coasts downhill and quits.
Judge, as evidenced by "King of the Hill," has become an astute observer of middle-American angst. "Office Space" offers more proof with its clever rendering of daily life at Initech, a computer company that might be located in the Silicon Valley or, really, anywhere in the country where generic office parks, chain restaurants and apartment complexes are to be found.
Peter, a reasonably bright 20-something programmer and all-around nice guy, begins his morning stuck in traffic so slow-moving that he's easily bypassed by an old man with a walker. At work, cloistered behind blue office dividers with metal frames and fabric, he sits down to another series of mind-numbing tasks.
One co-worker greets callers in a high-pitched chirp that drones on an on. Veteran employee Tom (Richard Riehle), a constant complainer, is deathly afraid of being fired. Bill Lumbergh, an unctuous, patronizing boss, hilariously portrayed by Gary Cole ("A Simple Plan," the "Brady Bunch" movies), comes by to remind Peter that his recent reports didn't include the appropriate cover sheets. Lumbergh, who pulls up to work in a baby-blue Porsche, has an annoying way of beginning conversations with an oily, drawn-out "Yeah, hi" and dispatching dreaded duties with, "If you could just go ahead and ... ."
Peter and his pals Michael Bolton (David Herman), a regular guy who despises the schlock-pop singer whose name he shares, and foreign-born Samir (Ajay Naidu) take a lunch break at Chotchkie's, a Bennigan's-type restaurant where servers are rah-rah happy and festooned with multiple pins intended to show off their "flair." There, the three co-workers grouse about Initech and check out attractive waitress Joanna, portrayed by "Friends" star Jennifer Aniston. It's yet another routine performance by a small-screen sensation likely to disappear once the popular series shuts down.
Back at work, the powers that be are bent on the usual evil practiced by large corporations: streamlining, with an eye toward short-term profits rather than the long-term health of the organization. Lumbergh, delivering platitudes about the good of the company, introduces highly paid consultant Bob Slydell (John C. McGinley), who plans to interview employees about the specifics of their jobs and then, secretly at first, move on to downsizing.
Peter, after a strange session with a hypnotherapist (Micheal McShane), decides to slack off and, later, to employ the help of Michael Bolton and Samir with a scheme designed to rip off the company. It's the perfect crime, until $300,000 suddenly shows up in Peter's account at the credit union.
"Office Space" eventually winds its way to an unsatisfying conclusion. Judge, along the way, offers lots of rib-tickling touches, including the strange saga of muttering Milton (Stephen Root), an eccentric who's pushed by Lumbergh to the point of criminality, and the dismissal of Tom, made wealthy through a startling series of events.
One absolutely intoxicating sequence has Peter and his pals taking a notoriously dysfunctional fax and copy machine to the middle of a field and vigorously attacking it with hands, feet and a sledgehammer. The three do the dirty deed in slow-motion to an angry hip-hop tune, and Michael Bolton leaves with the machine's entrails in his hands.
Judge, making passing references to the far crankier Michael Douglas vehicle "Falling Down" and the less inspired comedy "Take This Job and Shove It," has come up with an original take on the banalities and frustrations endemic to the working world. The familiarity of the setting adds an appealing edginess to the comedy. Then again, do we really want to be reminded of all that annoying stuff on our own time?