Candy-Coated Comedies

Jawbreaker and Office Space take different approaches to plot development and reach different levels of success.

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Plot is a central problem in both Jawbreaker and Office Space, two comedies opening this week: The first has too much, and the second (and far better of the two movies) has too little.

Jawbreaker's 26-year-old writer/director Darren Stein says he wanted to make an homage to the films he watched in his San Fernando Valley youth. More accurately, however, Jawbreaker seems like an homage to the film he watched, i.e., Heathers. While there are a few moments invoking Carrie, Jawbreaker owes more to the 1989 Winona Ryder film, directed by Michael Lehmann and written by Daniel Waters--which itself owed at least as much to Renee Daalder's 1976 Massacre at Central High--than to all his other influences put together.

The movie centers on The Flawless Four, a snotty clique of four girls who are the status queens of Reagan High School. Courtney (Rose McGowan) is the leader, with Julie (Rebecca Gayheart), Marcie (Julie Benz), and Liz (Charlotte Roldan) her acolytes. When Liz is accidentally killed during a birthday prank--she chokes on a jawbreaker, hence the title--the others, with the nauseatingly cool, unaffected Courtney as their guide, contrive to cover up their involvement.

Unfortunately, school geek Fern Mayo (Judy Greer) stumbles upon them in mid-scheme. To ensure her silence, Courtney offers Fern a Faustian bargain: They'll give Fern a makeover and promote her to Miss Popularity. She'll even become Liz's replacement in their little circle.

Repulsed both by Courtney's cold-bloodedness and by the horrible changes in Fern--who, as part of this Pygmalion/Clueless transformation, takes the name "Vylette"--Julie defects and, together with new boyfriend Zack (Chad Christ), tries to expose the truth.

Since Jawbreaker has thriller elements, the tightness of the plot is crucial. Unfortunately, the plot is full of repeated confusions and inconsistencies, most of them revolving around Fern's identity switch. Somehow she is supposed to have attended school as a new student named Vylette without anybody noticing; but, at moments when it suits Stein's purposes, he suddenly decides that people do know she's Fern. At times, this sloppy vacillation makes a full round trip within a minute or two.

This nonsense is distracting enough, but it's not the film's only problem. Like many a young filmmaker, Stein wants to show off a bunch of stylistic tricks: Jawbreaker is filled with surreal moments. A few work, but many fall flat. One, in which Julie walks through a hallway of frozen students, is confusing and amateurish--precisely the sort of thing you're supposed to get out of your system in film school.

Be forewarned that several of the better-known players in the cast are barely onscreen, including William Katt, P.J. Soles, Jeff Conaway, and Marilyn Manson, all of whose screen time totaled can't be more than two or three minutes. On the plus side, Jawbreaker makes nice, if brief, use of both Pam Grier (as a tough police detective) and Carol Kane (as a dorky teacher).

Office Space, despite its barely existent plot, fares much better. This is the first live-action feature from Mike Judge, the genius behind Beavis and Butt-head and King of the Hill. Oddly enough, for his subject matter, Judge has reached back to his earliest work--the half-dozen "Milton" cartoons he singlehandedly produced in the early '90s, before his concurrent "Beavis and Butt-head" shorts came to the attention of MTV.

The very first "Milton" cartoon was also called Office Space, and its content--a rambling monologue by a pathetically put-upon office worker about how his bosses keep shrinking his cubicle--has been pretty much assimilated into the new Office Space. But Milton (Stephen Root) is only a minor character here, which is a good thing: He would be intolerable as a protagonist. Instead, Judge focuses on Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston), a more believable (and probably autobiographical) character.

Peter is a perfectly pleasant, average young man, whose life is slipping away in a nowhere job as a programmer for some sort of tech firm called INITECH. (It's telling that neither we nor the characters ever quite seem to know just what INITECH does.) Imploding with frustration over the bureaucratic idiocy inflicted on him daily by his smarmy boss (Gary Cole), Peter decides to go to a hypnotherapist. The therapist puts Peter into a state of completely relaxed inhibitions and then promptly keels over, without having brought him back out of the trance. The new Peter, freed from anxiety, starts blowing off both his girlfriend and his boss. He casually asks out the waitress (Jennifer Aniston) he has long been too shy to speak to. With somewhat predictable irony, his totally honest attitude is so refreshing to the firm's new efficiency experts that he starts moving up the corporate ladder.

This may seem like a plot, but it's really only a setup. And Judge seems to have realized that, because, well past the midway mark, he effectively starts a second plot, with Peter and his two best friends (David Herman and Ajay Naidu) launching a clever embezzlement scheme. This nearly episodic structure prevents the movie from developing much narrative drive, but, unlike Jawbreaker, Office Space's pleasures don't really depend on plot. It's pretty much what a Dilbert feature should look like--in fairness, Judge was mining this subject matter before Scott Adams started his popular comic strip--and, as in Dilbert, it nails bureaucratic stupidity in the workplace--and the sorts of personalities this stupidity attracts and fosters--with absolute accuracy.

While Office Space doesn't qualify as sophisticated comedy, it also avoids slapstick and stupidity jokes. For better or worse--and I say for better--Judge is not the Farrelly brothers. His movie, despite its satirical exaggerations, is still basically a character-based comedy. In Livingston's hands, Peter is a likable hero whose all-American blandness makes him an appropriate contrast to Milton and the other hideously vapid or frustrated workers. What will seem strange to fans of Judge's animated work is the way most of the actors appear to be doing imitations of characters performed by Judge himself in Beavis and Butt-head and King of the Hill. It's decidedly weird to hear these familiar voices finally coming out of human mouths.

Written and directed by Darren Stein. With Rose McGowan, Rebecca Gayheart, Judy Greer, Julie Benz, Chad Christ, and Pam Grier.

Office Space.
Written and directed by Mike Judge; based on the "Milton" animated shorts by Mike Judge. With Ron Livingston, Jennifer Aniston, David Herman, Ajay Naidu, Stephen Root, and Gary Cole.

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