Film Review – Corner Office
The casting of Jon Hamm might be the most ingenious thing about Corner Office (2022). Because it is set within a workplace environment – with offices, desks, break rooms, cubicles, etc. – the presence of Hamm will undoubtedly call to mind his work in Mad Men. Oh, but this is a far cry from Don Draper. Hamm inhabits his character, Orson, as a frumpy, socially awkward, paranoid, and overly ambitious individual. It’s as though he can perform the basic functions of the office, but is incapable of understanding them. Hamm tucks away any sense of a cool or calm personality. He utilizes his comedic timing to create a character that is all weird rhythms and bizarre behavior. Orson thinks he deserves more than what life has handed to him, but is too stuck in his own head to fulfill his ambitions.
Orson is the newest employee of a company known as “The Authority.” What this company does is not specified. All we know is that it is made up of people sitting at desks rummaging through stacks of paperwork. The entire building is an ode to mundanity, with its cold grays and whites, lifeless concrete walls, and rooms that lack warmth and hospitality. Occasionally, the editing (James Norris) will cut to a wide overhead shot of the parking lot, where the endless rows of cars gives the impression that every employee is just a cog in a corporate machine. In a way, Orson and The Authority are cut from the same cloth. With his hyper focus and no nonsense attitude, Orson is tailor made for this kind of work. He sets about his day organizing his activities down to the minute, and going so far as to give advice to coworkers on being more efficient (which, of course, doesn’t go over so well).
Things change once Orson discovers a hidden room that is unlike anything else in the building. With its wood paneling, earthy tones, comfy chairs, paintings, and record player, the room is so inviting that Orson begins spending more time there. This discovery proves to be problematic with the rest of his coworkers because – and this is not a spoiler – all of them insist that such a room does not exist. To Orson’s annoyance, no one has seen the office, including his boss (Christopher Heyerdahl). So what does this mean? Is someone playing a trick on Orson? Is he going out of his mind, or is there a darker conspiracy at hand?
Director Joachim Back and screenwriter Ted Kupper (adapting Jonas Karlsson’s book, The Room) structure the film as an offbeat, surreal dark comedy. At first, this approach helps establish an underlying menace. With each passing day, Orson feels more isolated within his department. Pawel Edelman’s cinematography lingers on people’s faces, often reacting to something Orson may have said or done. The camera frame will go to a middle or close up shot, as characters observe Orson like scientists observing a test subject. Rakesh (Danny Pudi) sits next to Orson, and will often sit back and stare at him without saying a word. Carol (Allison Riley) is located on the other side of the floor, but occasionally whispers to coworkers and sneaks glances over to Orson. What does it all mean? Why are they so concerned with his behavior? Alyssa (Sarah Gadon), who works the reception desk, will be in the middle of a nice conversation and then suddenly have a look of concern, or even fear. Does this all have something to do with that secret room?
The question of whether or not the hidden room really exists is not the main point of Corner Office. The film makes it abundantly clear what the truth is in that regard. What’s not so apparent is what it stands for. Obviously, the film is making a comment on the trials and tribulations of working in an office setting, but the messaging is fuzzy. Is this about the oppressiveness of conformity, of doing the same thing over and over every single day? Is it about the evils of capitalism and the lengths people will go to move up the economic ladder? Is it about mental health? There are hints that something is not right about Orson, but we’re never given enough information to make an informed guess. His narration reveals how he has a distaste for social settings, has an inflated sense of self, and believes himself to be superior to everyone else in skill and intelligence. Is Orson a sociopath?
The more we think about how the narrative is structured, the more it falls apart. If Orson is mentally unstable to the point that others feel uncomfortable being around him, how did he get the job in the first place? Why hire someone that could pose a risk to themselves and others? On the flip side, if he is a person who needs special treatment to function properly, why would the entire office put him on an island to fend for himself? Shouldn’t someone help him out instead of letting him dive into his flights of fancy? The writing and direction are good and creating and building anxiety, but the payoff never hits in a satisfying way. I suppose this is meant to be a satire, but we’re not exactly sure what it is satirizing. Sure, the setting is an office with an apparent secret room, but so what? The narrative goes around in circles, creating questions that have no answers and never giving us enough to come up with our own interpretations. The film is all tone and atmosphere with not much underneath.
Which is too bad, because in terms of aesthetics alone, Back and the rest of the production add nice visual touches to establish how peculiar this world is. Having all the employees cover their shoes to prevent floor damage is a strange but amusing detail. The boss’ office is located smack dab in the middle of the main room, with walls made of glass so that others can see him just as well as he can see them. The walls are plain and empty – the entire place feels sterile and barren. It would make sense that Orson would be attracted to the secret room, and that his work productivity increases just by being there. But that harkens to the bigger issue: Does the hidden office exist as an escape from the rest of the building, or is it a symptom of something more troubling? Is the room meant to help or hurt Orson?
There is a lot to like about Corner Office, but the final product is incomplete. I don’t need a movie to spell out every single detail or explain its themes explicitly, but it has to give us something to hold onto. Unfortunately, this settles on being ambiguous without a perspective, and in turn we lose our fascination with it.