The justifiably popular British and American versions of the water-cooler TV show "The Office" have crafted comedy from the many absurdities that define the workplace. But the new Lars von Trier film, The Boss of It All, reaches new, surreal heights in its droll send-up of office culture. It's all there: the out-of-touch bosses, the resentful underlings and the feigned we're-all-in-this-together camaraderie, goosed with von Trier's usual subversive take on reality.
It's a refreshing change of course from the director of Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark and Dogville; after establishing himself as an art-house heavy, von Trier finds himself with The Boss of It All, amazingly, in a farcical mode. But it's farce delivered in the Danish auteur's highly conceptual, smarty-britches style.
The Boss of It All is very much like the first day at a new job, where confusion and terror are hidden behind a mask of competent cool. The film centers on the efforts of an out-of-work actor, Kristoffer (Jens Albinus), to convince the employees of a high-tech Danish company that he is the company "boss of it all" Svend E., visiting from the United States.
The true CEO, Ravn (Peter Gantzler), believes cloaking his actual role in the company makes him a more lovable team player. So he hires Kristoff to play his superior and to make the unpleasant move of selling his company to a gruff, walruslike Icelandic buyer, Finnur (Fridrick Thor Fridriksson).
Cash in hand, Kristoff assumes his role with gusto.
He engages in lengthy discussions with Ravn about his "character." He stalks the company's hallways, trying to glean the nature of the business going on in the cryptically stark Copenhagen company.
Kristoff's deception proves surprisingly easy. Despite his employees throwing out occasional zingers such as, "It's the deficiency list for the DB7 patch," Kristoff finds that with a few well-placed terms such as "off-shoring" and an aloof manner, he can "pass."
The nature of the workplace turns out to be the perfect cover for Kristoff's cluelessness; absentee bosses are expected to be ignorant of the actual workings of their companies, and Kristoff fits that bill effortlessly.
Kristoff's dopiness only makes his employees love Ravn more. They sing affectionate songs and exchange bear hugs with their cuddly, bearded supervisor while eyeing interloper Kristoff warily.
As the film opens, von Trier can be seen reflected in an office window holding a camera. The director intermittently narrates the story with a snide, joking delivery. Von Trier makes it clear in such assertions of his presence that the director is the real "boss of it all" who holds ultimate control over what we see or don't see. And he interrupts the story several times to flex that despotic power; it's also possible that Kristoff may represent von Trier taking his revenge against pompous actors.
Though von Trier begins his film on a dismissive note, telling us "it's a comedy and harmless as such," the director doth protest too much. What office comedies such as The Boss of It All illustrate is how closely any office rivals the theatrical stage for intrigue, power grabs and hidden agendas.
Von Trier uses the idea of an actor "playing" a boss to make the point that life is theater, and we perform the roles we are dealt. Part of von Trier's shtick has always been a puckish, provocative no-bullshit approach to life and to film. His famous Dogme filmmaking ground rules – prankish though they were – were an attempt to go beyond the presumption that there is one "right" kind of film reality.
With a new technique of "Automavision" in which his computer-controlled camera "directs" by choosing when to zoom or pan, von Trier continues his foray into the outer limits of cinematic technique.
In the same way a film such as Dogville saw behind the presumed innocence of quaint small-town life to find vicious cruelty at its core, The Boss of It All returns to the idea of fraud and fiction underpinning our lives. And though this time von Trier plays deceit and bad behavior for comic value, that same lacerating, waggish von Trier vantage remains.