Office Noir: alienation and black comedy in the modern workplace

Do you work in an office? If you do, or if you have ever worked in one for any length of time, the environment probably reminds you of the Dilbert comic strip. Absurd rules, meaningless corporate mission statements, dimwitted, self-important managers, and so forth.

Several movies have used the sillier and more depressing aspects of modern work life as a theme. I am dubbing this genre of film Office Noir. I’m sure there are more examples than I am listing here. As I think of them or discover them, I’ll add to the list.

Office Space , directed by Mike Judge, is the best known, and has achieved something of cult status. Starring Ron Livingston and Jennifer Anniston, it is a black comedy that, sadly, rings true in its portrayal of office life. I found the best part of it the early scenes that illustrate the overall mindlessness of corporate culture . Several cubicle serfs rebel by concocting a farfetched plot to steal money from the company. Office Space is an often hilarious, sometimes depressing look at a way of life too many people are stuck in.

My favorite of the “office noir” genre, however, is a lesser known film called Clockwatchers . Directed by Jill Sprecher, who also did the brilliant 13 Conversations About One Thing, this movie is more subtle and slow moving than most, which probably accounts for its obscurity. The cast includes Toni Collette, Lisa Kudrow and Indie film favorite Parker Posey. Clockwatchers is about the grim lives of temp workers in a company setting that seems intent on reducing their lives and personalities to that of non-entities. By focusing on small things that make life miserable, and an increasing sense of anomie and paranoia, Clockwatchers captures a kind of existentialist mood that, sadly, is appropriate in many ways in regard to the modern work place.

A more recent addition to the genre is He Was a Quiet Man, directed by Frank Capello and starring Christian Slater (who is almost unrecognizable as a balding, middle-aged nerdy type). This film is the most uneven and ambiguous of the three. It hovers between drama and very dark comedy. Slater plays Bob, the stereotypical repressed, inwardly seething “quiet man” who fantasizes about killing his coworkers. In a bit of movie contrivance that stretches credibility to the limits, on the day he plans to carry out his mission, another killer emerges and Bob ends up shooting him.

Bob ends up being not only a hero, but winning the love of a young woman whom he saved. This film is less about the day-to-day absurdity of office life (though it uses this effectively as a backdrop) and more about the psychological complexity and inner struggles of potentially violent people like Bob.

One thought on “Office Noir: alienation and black comedy in the modern workplace”

  1. Well, yes. That’s a fair criticism of the movie. The book/film has also been crztciiied for distorting the actual experience of African American maids and their families. And one woman (a former maid) even brought a lawsuit against the author of the book for stealing her story…

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