‘Corner Office’ Review: Jon Hamm Plays the Anti-Don Draper in a Surreal Workplace Satire

Tribeca: Jon Hamm's corporate drone finds a secret door none of his colleagues can see in a movie that's almost worth the busywork of watching it.
Corner Office Review: Jon Hamm Stars in a Surreal Workplace Satire
"Corner Office"

Orson (Jon Hamm) is an upwardly mobile corporate drone who suffers from Main Character Syndrome in a Kafkaesque work environment, his arrogance so vigorously rubbing against his anonymity that the friction created between those two forces is almost powerful enough to sustain the ultra-droll office satire that “Corner Office” constructs around it. Adapted from Jonas Karlsson’s lightly surreal (but extremely Scandinavian) novella, “The Room,” Joachim Back’s feature-length debut promotes a typical skewering of corporate drudgery with the hint of a curious new twist.

Whereas stories about paper-pushing worker drones have been done to death — to the point that Back’s film can seem perversely familiar when it isn’t futzing with the blueprints of reality — the human cog at the center of “Corner Office” might be even more screwed up than the machine he’s screwed into. It’s hard to say — at least at first.

In large part, that’s because this story is subjectively told from Orson’s POV, and carried less by dialogue than by the kind of skewed but self-affirming narration you’d find in a Tom Perrotta novel. Shortly after arriving for his first day of work at the drab and towering headquarters of The Authority, Inc (the kind of “Severance”-core super-conglomerate that manufactures only mysteries and metaphors), Orson thinks to himself: “I could view the world as something ominous, or I could choose to see the light.”

True to his word, Orson immediately discovers a ray of hope in the hallway that leads to the bathrooms near his open-plan cubicle. It’s a door, and behind that door is a lavish yet curiously unused executive’s office, furnished with enough mid-century flair to make it seem like the throne room of Don Draper’s wildest dreams. Since nobody else seems to be using it, Orson starts going in this “corner” office whenever he needs to clear his head. Being in there helps him think. Sitting behind its large mahogany desk grants him a sense of authority. The room mirrors his private suspicions of superiority, granting him a space that looks as special as he feels. The only problem is that Orson’s colleagues don’t quite see things the same way. Maybe they’re jealous of his initiative. Or maybe, well… maybe Orson is just a bit too overconfident in his assumption that he’s one-of-a-kind (or in his assumption that being different is inherently better).

The dry pleasures of “Corner Office” — most of them intermittent and after-the-fact — stem from the film’s ambivalence towards Orson’s value at The Authority. The mystery of his beloved room is completely explained by the end of the story, and yet Ted Kupper’s screenplay refuses to resolve the more pressing question that takes its place: At what point do Orson’s differences become a liability? Asked another way: Is lemming-like conformity any worse than delusional individualism?

Hamm’s implosively kooky performance is determined to leave things open to interpretation, as the actor remains perfectly calibrated against the film’s premise from start to finish; the more deranged Orson appears (or the more annoying he becomes), the less harmful he seems. The mustachioed character is never more insufferable than he is at the beginning, when he rolls up to The Authority HQ with a sociopathic look that I can only describe as “someone cosplaying Stanley Tucci from ‘The Lovely Bones,’” flashes a shit-eating smile at the beautiful receptionist (an overqualified Sarah Gadon, who nevertheless manages to hold the film steady together during its biggest swing), and precedes to look down on the other people who work on his floor. As if he’s the first person who’s ever rolled his eyes at the department boss (Christopher Heyerdahl) who’s so obsessed with keeping the floor clean that he makes all of his employees wear plastic booties as they shuffle around the office. As if he’s the first person to see this life for what it is.

To Orson, these people are all just different kinds of idiots. Mitchell (Bill Marchant) is the over-the-hill idiot who never figured out how to climb the corporate ladder, Shannon (Kimberley Shoniker) is the giggly idiot who laughs whenever anyone says anything, and Carol (Allison Riley) is the severe idiot so busy judging everyone else that she can’t even recognize the “stupidity” of her own children. Worst of all is Rakesh (Danny Pudi), who stacks his paperwork in maddeningly unorganized piles that threaten to spill over onto Orson’s desk from day one.

None of these people seem to like Orson very much either, even though he keeps the majority of his thoughts to himself. There’s just not much to enjoy about someone who exudes all of Don Draper’s brute condescension but none of his mystique — someone who acts like he’s the only person with access to the Matrix, and then constructs his entire reality around a single glitch.

It’s an intriguing dynamic, but one that “Corner Office” frequently struggles to articulate; Back’s direction lacks the wry kick of Karlsson’s writing, while Kupper’s script compromises between satire and surrealism in a way that often neutralizes them both. The results can be rather one-note to watch, though even tedious scenes give rise to fresh interpretations (much like the book on which it’s based, “Corner Office” could be read as a damning parable about the conditional acceptance of mental illness in modern society, which is often determined less by health than by convenience).

It’s only towards the very end, when the film’s satire and surrealism pull apart from each other like a party cracker, that the tension brewing in Orson’s department becomes compelling enough to justify the busywork of creating it. By the same token, it’s only when the differences between Orson and his colleagues grow irreconcilable that “Corner Office” is able to meaningfully suggest why that might not be the case.

Grade: C+

“Corner Office” premiered at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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