Office Movies: Past, Present and Future

Office Movies: Past, Present and Future

The average American workplace (or at least the perception of the average American workplace) has been a favorite location for TV and movies for decades. Currently, two of the most popular, critically acclaimed TV shows, The Office and Mad Men, take place primarily in a corporate setting and a number of memorable movies have dredged plenty of humor and pathos from a cubicle floor. But something about this strikes me as soon to be very dated. Offices, as we've known them for around a century, are starting to transform or disappear entirely. The idea of the generic corporation populated by middle class cubicle-dwellers is very quickly becoming an anachronism. This is going to have a significant impact on the kinds of stories we tell on the screen, if only because fewer people will be able to relate to that well-worn setting.

Mike Judge's cult favorite Office Space is really the alpha and omega of the workplace story. I suppose it's fitting that it was made just as offices themselves were starting to become irrelevant. It's the story of self-avowed "corporate drones" living out the fantasy of escaping their drab (though financially secure) lives in ways both minor and outlandish. Filmed in 1998 and released in 1999, Office Space came at a time when humor cultivated from copy machines and cubicles was about to become harder to pull off, if only because simple things like walls and paper would soon start to be less relevant to the modern American office.

In this vein, consider NBC's smash hit adaptation of the BBC original The Office. A lot of the drabness and desperation that makes up that series, especially the American version, is the idea that Dunder-Mifflin, a paper company, is attempting to operate in a world where people are using less paper every year. The show has also had an ongoing satirical thread that strongly suggests modern offices don't even need conventions like managerial staff or human resources. These are ideas that are currently running through real-life businesses, and offices are changing as a result.

For a more modern-looking office, one of the only places in pop culture I've found one is the middling but still somewhat underrated comedy 40 Days and 40 Nights. Josh Hartnett's character works in a sort of stereotypical Web-bubble of an office with an open floor plan, a predominantly young staff and a notably casual atmosphere. There's nary a tie or cubicle wall anywhere in the setup, making the whole operation look as fly-by-night as a lot of Web-based businesses truly are. Such settings are still fairly rare in movies and television. It's more common to see the traditional office in pop culture as well as the increasingly dated office politics that go with it. But for how much longer?

As modern society moves farther from brick-and-mortar business and more to a generation full of telecommuters, will movies reflect this? It's possible that the cubicle-dotted office floor will become a sort of mythical place for screen stories, much like the disconcertingly sunny suburban street or the malevolent inner city. Regardless of whether those places are especially common in real life, they're a part of the cultural perception of our society. Given a generation or so, that stereotypical office will have to be an anachronism for period pieces, though.