In “Mad Men,” Jon Hamm had his corner office: the room with a view, overlooking Madison Avenue, where Don Draper could work, drink and brainstorm in peace. Maybe that’s why the actor was drawn to playing a lowly paper pusher with a bad mustache and big dreams of occupying such a space in “Corner Office,” a low-key, screw-loose workplace satire that offers audiences a side of Hamm they’ve never seen before — and might not be in such a hurry to experience again, unless the toil-from-home blues of the pandemic have made them receptive to the call of cubicle life.
Premiering at the Tribeca Festival, “Corner Office” is director Joachim Back’s slightly taxing cinematic take on “The Room,” a slender novel by Swedish actor-cum-author Jonas Karlsson, unread by me, that bills itself as “a short, sharp and fiendish fable in the tradition of Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett and Charlie Kaufman.” Check, check and check, insofar as those three absurdist writers are concerned, though I’d quibble with the other descriptors in that pitch.
Slow, blunt and benign, the film stretches its relatively thin premise — that Hamm’s character, Orson, has discovered a secret office stashed halfway between the elevator and the lavatory of his thankless new desk job — to more than 100 minutes, reducing Orson to a pathetic figure in the process. Film fans will recognize the opening shot, which is not identical but at least super-similar to the overhead view of a snow-covered parking lot from “Fargo,” a tough-to-top portrait of a similarly exasperated drone (William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard) seeking any angle to get ahead.
In Orson’s case, we learn nothing of his private life, only his ambition to advance at a stultifying entry-level job with The Authority, a vaguely bureaucratic organization (an infinitely tall CG skyscraper plopped atop the brutalist entrance to Simon Fraser University) so antiseptic that employees are encouraged to wear blue plastic booties to protect the floors. Director Back and his production designer, Troy Hansen, drain this workspace of personal flair, cleverly forcing perspective on a few of their sets to make typically tall-and-handsome Hamm appear drab and distant in virtually every room but one.
Orson can’t explain what a cozy executive suite is doing unused on his floor, but he finds it to be the perfect retreat from the stress. At first, he merely pokes his head in (DP Pawel Edelman shoots these scenes from far away, so all we can make out is Hamm’s silhouette in the doorway). But as the pressures mount, Orson grows more brazen, sneaking away to the corner office — with its rich wood paneling, midcentury modern furniture and vintage record player. With each visit, he makes himself more at home, propping his feet up on the desk and stealing case files from his more senior colleagues and completing them in comfort.
“When I work in there, I am able to do anything,” he confides to Alissa (Sarah Gadon), the friendly face who works at reception. None of Orson’s colleagues knows quite what to make of him, and Back makes it a point to contrast the way Hamm’s voiceover describes them with the behavior we see. Either our eyes are fooling us, or Orson is delusional. Something is not right with Orson, judging by the way everyone treats him like a mental patient.
After he starts disappearing into his room, Orson’s colleagues — desk mate Rakesh (Danny Pudi), busybody Carol (Allison Riley) and awkward Mitchell (Bill Marchant) — organize an intervention, calling a meeting with office manager Andrew (Christopher Heyerdahl). The boss seems sympathetic, but again, Orson’s version of things doesn’t mesh with what other characters are saying, which makes the turnabout, when they all suddenly recognize his brilliance, tough to swallow. His co-workers claim that Orson stands in front of a blank wall and stares, unresponsive, for long stretches at a time.
What if they’re right? What if there is no room? Or else, what if it exists only in Orson’s head? What does it mean that he drags Rakesh there to complain about the way he stacks his case files on the adjoining desk? Does this mean that Orson is actually avoiding confrontation, only raising the objection in his head? If so, that makes this a movie about mental illness, filtered through an unreliable — and let’s face it, unlikable — narrator. The Kafka comparison is clear, although tonally, “Corner Office” plays more like a cross between “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (the original short stories, not the screen versions, mind you). In this case, that’s still not enough to build a movie around. Like head-in-the-clouds Orson, Back’s debut feature imagines more for itself than others can see, though only the latter has earned a shot at another job.