Jon Hamm shines in Corner Office. He portrays Orson, employee of The Authority, a monolithic global conglomerate. Director Joachim Back’s opening shots reveal The Authority’s headquarters where Orson has been newly hired. A structural monstrosity, the immense building towers into the clouds, rendering its upper floors invisible.
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 voiceover narration with success.
The director creates the film’s atmosphere and surreal tenor using flat lighting and dull color schemes to evoke the austere look of a lifeless office environment. Also, he uses unusual camera angles implying relationships of menace, inferiority or absence. For example, at times he shoots Andrew, Orson’s boss, in an upward angle looking down on his underlings. 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 Orson eventually confronts and challenges its ethos with his unique particularity.
Adapted From Jonas Karlsson’s The Room
In keeping with Jonas Karlsson’s concepts and overall thesis, Back portrays the overweening domination of the anti-creative, drudgery-producing Philistines of the corporate world. The higher-ups of global conglomerate boards oppress their plebeians to accept mediocrity in a status quo which destroys humanity to increase the bottom line. With the banality of evil, such uninspiring 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 work world of corporate and governmental bureaucracies everywhere.
As Orson arrives at his new position with his box of desk supplies, the film foreshadows his alienation and isolation. An aerial shot shows Orson getting out of his car in a snowstorm, a lone figure against white in a massive parking lot filled with 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 workers. Throughout, Orson narrates his impressions and thoughts to us, while remaining quiet, non-communicative, removed.
Cast Against Type
Cleverly casting Hamm against his Mad Men type, Back re-envisions Karlsson’s Orson as a nebbishy-looking, seemingly wish-washy invisible. Yet, Orson’s astute inner critic circumspectly analyzes his colleagues’ inferiority 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.
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 suggests Orson is striving to distinguish himself as superior to the others. He rejects the hive mentality that says: 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. In time he determines himself to be a person to be reckoned with.
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 plays low-key, his inner perceptions revealed by Hamm’s voiceover narration with Back’s visuals of his clueless peers indicate Orson’s maverick brilliance and talent.
The Magical Corner Office Appears
When Andrew scolds Orson for not obeying the sign “Think About the Floor” and covering his snow-laden boots with booties, Orson recoils, humiliated. It is then, walking to the men’s room, that he discovers a secret room along the corridor. Making sure no one watches him, he goes inside and finds a traditional, warm, wood-paneled office with luxurious appointments, seating, soft lighting and a pleasant anti-corporate, anti-worker bee, anti-bureaucratic esthetic.
Magically, this lovely office befitting a CEO works wonders for Orson’s soul. The secret room, enhanced with muted, lyrical music each time Orson enters, transforms him physically into the gorgeous, stunning Jon Hamm of Mad Men. He drips with confidence and power, presenting the finest version of himself.
When colleagues and Andrew question what he’s doing, Orson refers them to the secret room. They insist there is no corner office. Colleagues gather to watch Orson stand in front of a wall and stare. We wonder, what gives? Back tricks us into wanting to believe the room exists because of how Orson morphs when he relaxes in its “magic.” The profound contrast between institutionalization and humanity is so pronounced by the sets, atmosphere, cinematography, silences, and room music that it stuns. We gladly accept Orson’s reality. Yet, if the others don’t see it, we accept that Orson’s crazy. Which truth abides?
The Authority’s “Truth”
After Orson visits the company psychiatrist and she determines his wellness, Andrew tells him to keep his job he must not stand by the wall and stare into it. He must agree no room exists. But Orson has unquestionably experienced the “room’s” beauty and becomes his evolved self in it. Why can’t Andrew and the others 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 and there creates his finest, most precise work. When Andrew discovers it’s Orson who has done this excellent work, he lauds him and his colleagues congratulate him. Orson may even have saved the division from threatened restructuring. His valuation by Andrew indeed makes 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 flatlining 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.
Can Corner Office Have an Ending?
Back’s symbolism and metaphors for the commercialism which breeds destructive institutionalization and bureaucratic nihilism smashes through each scene. Superb, ironic performances by Hamm, Pudi, Heyerdahl and the entire cast elucidate these profound themes. The indictment of the Philistines of corporate empires to cast aside employees’ potential for genius and innovation manifests with power in this surreal tale.
You’ll laugh and you’ll ache, but you must see it. Stream it at home via the Tribeca website.