Head Office

June 8, 2011

At first glance, Head Office appears to be an absurdist satire along the lines of Paddy Chayefsky’s Network or Hospital. This time the subject is big business, of the multimillion-dollar cut-throat variety.

In the film’s opening minutes, we’re introduced to a rabid gallery of business people. One executive (Danny DeVito) arrives at his office and discovers the furniture movers taking his couch away; this is the first sign that he’s become a non-person. He finds a farewell present in his bare office and, upon discovering it is only a Timex, throws himself out a window.

Another exec (Rick Moranis, doing a spinoff of a character he used to do on “SCTV”) goes through a delirious routine of answering all 35 of his ringing phone lines pausing long enough to mutter savagely, “I looove this business”—whereupon he keels over dead.

Another exec (Wallace Shawn) learns he has only eight months to live, and the sharks start gathering at the door; another (Jane Seymour) is sleeping her way to the top—but, as she defensively points out, “I wouldn’t be much of an executive if I slept my way to the bottom.”

The company they work for is INC, run by Eddie Albert, who enjoys stirring up Central American civil wars and is given to saying things such as, “I’m one of the most powerful men in the world, and if I can’t have somebody killed, then what does it mean to be powerful?”

Into this feeding frenzy is thrown a fresh business-school grad (Judge Reinhold, Eddie Murphy’s sidekick in Beverly Hills Cop), the son of a senator, whose graduation present from his parents is a three-piece suit and a paperback copy of “Winning Through Intimidation.”

As it turns out, Reinhold couldn’t intimidate anybody even if he wanted to—and he doesn’t want to. But he gets a series of promotions anyway, because the people of INC want to use his father’s power.

So far, this satire is funny—and welcome. It’s refreshing to see some good, clean cynicism, especially after the recent surfeit of Sylvester Stallone thumbs-up movies.

But then writer-director Ken Finkleman has to go and get hung up on plot—specifically, a plot about Reinhold falling for a girl trying to save a small town whose livelihood, a steel mill, is about to be closed by INC. This detracts from the fertile madness of the office building, and builds to an entirely conventional conclusion.

Still, Head Office has a few good yuks to offer, and a busload of good supporting performances. Particularly memorable is Michael O’Donoghue, who may be remembered as the twisted “Mr. Mike” from the original “Saturday Night Live.” O’Donoghue, as Albert’s icy No. 2 man, blandly weighs the pros and cons of assassination, cocking his head thoughtfully—it’s a performance that would be quite terrifying in a straight movie.

First published in the Herald, January 9, 1986

Clearly, I wanted this to be better. Finkleman is still working in television, Moranis has sort of quietly left the limelight, and O’Donoghue died in 1994. Was this movie ahead of its time, completely in the wrong decade? I guess so, but it deserves some blame for backing away from its raucous early scenes.