In Corner Office, John Ham shines in his portrayal of Orson, employee of The Authority a monolithic global conglomerate. Director Joachim Back’s opening shots reveal The Authority’s headquarters to be a structural monstrosity so immense it towers into the clouds, rendering its upper floors invisible in obvious symbolism. Screenwriter Ted Kupper adapted Corner Office from Jonas Karlsson’s ironic, existential novel The Room. A Tribeca Film Festival Spotlight Narrative film, Back’s sardonic comedy features Hamm’s deadpan delivery and ironic voice over narration with success.
Importantly, the director creates the atmosphere and surreal tenor of the film using flat lighting and dull color schemes to evoke the austere look and feel of a lifeless office environment. Also, he uses unusual camera angels implying relationships of menace, inferiority or absence. For example, at times he shoots Andrew, their boss in an upward angle as Andrew looks down on his underlings. These he alternates when Hamm’s Orson is in his element of peace, power and personal authority which begins after Back sets up Orson’s nemesis, The Authority and those who promote it. The cubicle desks set off the see-through glass office where, Andrew (Christopher Heyerdahl) sits, observes and manages with eerie calm. The function, mission and purpose of The Authority remain opaque. However, its symbolism becomes apparent as Hamm’s Orson eventually challenges its ethos with his unique particularity.
In keeping with Jonas Karlsson’s concepts and overall thesis, Back takes to task the overweening domination of the anti-creative, drudgery producing Philistines of the corporate world. Indeed, the higher ups of multi-global conglomerate boards oppress their plebeians with mediocrity in a status quo which destroys humanity to increase the bottom line. With the banality of evil, such non inspiring workplaces siphon off creativity, originality, genius, identity and vision. Indeed, Back’s creation of the nullifying atmosphere that reduces Orson and his colleagues to drones, characterizes the loathsome world of corporate and governmental bureaucracies everywhere.
When Orson arrives at his new position with his box of desk supplies, Beck foreshadows his alienation and isolation. Visually, the director includes an aerial shot of Orson getting out of his car in a snowstorm, a lone figure against white in a massive parking lot of hundreds of employees’ cars.
Quickly, Orson adjusts to his open office cubicle. However, he has no divider between himself and his colleague Rakesh, who displeases him like the rest of the uncaring, numbed workers. Throughout, Orson narrates his impressions and thoughts to us, while remaining quiet, non communicative, removed.
Cleverly casting Hamm against his Mad Men type, Beck transposes Karlsson’s Orson into a nebbishy-looking, seemingly wish-washy invisible. Yet, Orson’s astute, inner critic circumspectly analyzes his colleagues’ mediocrity with humorous wit and darkly comedic self-satisfaction. Structuring his routine into 55 minute slots to achieve maximum performance, he even holds off on bathroom breaks. He tells us withholding his pee builds character.
Interestingly, Orson’s analytical inner critic remains defensive. And his arrogant attitude puts off unmotivated desk partner Rakesh (Danny Pudi) whom he chides for piling up his folders that threaten to mess up Orson’s organized, OCD desk. Thus, Back subtly, humorously intimates Orson’s character strives to distinguish himself as superior to the others. He rejects the hive mentality; fit in, shut up, don’t make waves, don’t excel, speak quietly, just get by. Safely, Orson confides in us, as he hypocritically plays the game. However, he determines himself to be a person to be reckoned with in time, in an opaque and funny statement.
As Orson, Hamm’s delivery and attitude remain reserved, understated and ironically humorous. For example he notes his “peers” defer to dominant Carol (Allison Riley). Yet her child’s incorrect perspective in a crayon drawing shows her biased weakness at not correcting the silly drawing. Though Orson channels low-key, his inner perceptions revealed by Hamm’s voice over narration with Back’s visuals of his clueless peers indicate Orson’s maverick brilliance and talent.
When Andrew scolds Orson for not obeying the sign “Think About the Floor,” to cover his snow laden boots with booties, Orson recoils, humiliated. And it is then walking to the men’s room that he discovers a secret room along the corridor nearby. Making sure no one watches him, he goes inside and finds a traditional, warm, wood paneled office with luxurious appointments, seating, soft lighting and pleasant anti-corporate, anti-worker bee, anti-bureaucratic esthetic.
Magically, this lovely warm, traditional office befitting a CEO works wonders for Orson’s soul. The secret room that Back enhances with muted, lyrical music each time Orson enters transforms him physically into the gorgeous, stunning Hamm. He drips with confidence and power. Evolved confidence presents the finest version of himself.
Problematically, when colleagues and Andrew question what he’s doing, Orson refers them to the secret room. They insist upon no corner office . And Back verifies this as colleagues gather to watch Orson stand in front of a wall and stare. Frightening us, we wonder what gives? Back tricks us to want to believe the room exists because of how Orson morphs when he relaxes in its “magic.” Profoundly, the contrast between institutionalization and humanity so pronounced by Back in his sets, atmosphere, cinematography, silences, room music stuns. Ironically, we gladly accept Orson’s reality. Yet, if the others don’t see it, we accept Orson’s crazy. Which truth abides?
We experience cognitive dissonance and a disconnect. Can both be true if we lift our understanding to the metaphoric level that some people see and experience things which help them tap into the best of themselves? Or is Orson just off his rocker and in intentional rebellion against the Philistines? If that is the case, he does have a point, but carries it too far and sets himself up for attack and betrayal.
After he visits the company psychiatrist and she determines his wellness, Andrew presents the condition of his employment. To remain he must not stand by the wall and stare into it. He must agree no room exists. Unquestionably, Orson experiences the “rooms” beauty and becomes his evolved self in it. Why can’t they see the room or its possibilities?
Adhering to Andrew’s rules, Orson works even more furiously arriving earlier and leaving later. He sneaks into the magical office where he creates his finest most precise work. When Andrew discovers Orson created the assignments and not other employees, he lauds him and his colleagues congratulate him. Perhaps, he even saved the division from the threatened restructuring. His valuation by Andrew indeed made him a person of reckoning. Subsequently, this confidence prompts him to attempt a relationship with the company’s beautiful, friendly receptionist (Sarah Gadon), whom he squires to “the corner office” where he kisses her.
After this turning point, the conflict explodes between Orson’s inner knowledge, vision and genius and the corporation’s flalining function and structure, represented by Andrew, his colleagues and the EVP (Executive Vice President) in one of the cloud shrouded floors above. You’ll have to see the film or read Karlsson’s novel to understand whether a resolution breaks open or uncertainty continues.
Back’s symbolism and metaphors of the commercialism which breeds institutionalization and bureaucratic nihilism that destroys smashes through each scene of the film. Superb, ironic performances by Hamm, Pudi, Heyerdahl and the entire office cast elucidate the profound themes. The indictment of the Philistines of corporate empires to cast aside their employee’s opportunities for genius and innovation manifests with power in this surreal tale.
You’ll laugh and you’ll ache, but you must see it. Go to the Tribeca platform to stream it at home: https://tribecafilm.com/films/corner-office-2022