A big studio comedy requires a handful of ingredients: a bunch of talented character actors, some kind of novel but relatable situation, good jokes, and a selection of running gags that will get funnier as they recur over the course of the film. If it’s the holidays, just set it in December and sprinkle in some holiday-themed humor, and voila! You’ve got yourself a Christmas comedy.
I suppose it’s a sign of the times that this year’s three big Christmas-themed comedies — last month’s dismal Bad Santa 2, the upcoming Why Him?, and Office Christmas Party — all combine these elements in an R-rated package, equal parts naughty catharsis for weary grown-ups and competitive sport for “most transgressive.” Call it the Apatow effect: Christmas doesn’t turn out the impish but mostly family-friendly fare (like the Home Alone movies, The Family Man, The Santa Clause, A Christmas Story, and, of course, Elf) that it used to. Don’t bring the whole family.
And that’s okay! But only if the Christmas comedies are also funny.
Office Christmas Party, from Blades of Glory directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck, has all the elements it needed, and a clever premise too: What if your staid office holiday party was hijacked and turned into something more like a frat party, but for grown-ups? Would upsetting the natural order of things be jarring or delicious?
Turns out it’s just, at best, wildly uneven. Like a sloppy drunk cubicle-mate who will have to apologize for his behavior on Monday, Office Christmas Party swings between being pretty entertaining and marginally coherent.
Office Christmas Party wants to be a cathartic romp for an anxious age
In a manner curiously similar to both Bad Santa and Why Him? — and, I suppose, in the grand tradition of It’s a Wonderful Life — Office Christmas Party sets itself up as a tale of corporate woes and money troubles. Recently divorced Josh (Jason Bateman) is the chief technology officer at the Chicago branch of Zenotek Data Storage Systems, where his defining characteristic is that he always plays it safe. (Surprise! Bet you didn’t expect that from a Bateman character.)
Josh works in close proximity to Tracey (Olivia Munn), the total tech whiz and lead systems engineer, whom he’s also kind of in love with. (Another surprise!) The head of the branch is trust fund baby Clay (T.J. Miller), the son of the company founder, who’s a bit of an overgrown boy-man but also takes his employees seriously and treats them like family. (Okay, that may actually be a surprise.) Those employees include uptight HR head Mary (Kate McKinnon), Clay’s put-upon assistant Allison (Vanessa Bayer), a broken-inside head of customer service Jeremy (Rob Corddry), and head of IT Nate (Karan Soni), who is desperate to convince his cooler underlings that he has a smokin’ hot girlfriend.
But Clay’s sister Carol (Jennifer Aniston) was installed as interim CEO of Zenotek after their father died, and the day the office is meant to have a wine-and-cheese mixer, she arrives in Chicago to threaten them with closure unless they double their growth. Tracey is working on a tech solution that will revolutionize the industry, but it’s not ready, and Carol is not impressed. So Clay and Josh pledge that they’ll save the branch, and they’ll do so by landing the big account with Walter Davis (Courtney B. Vance) at a meeting that afternoon.
At the meeting with Davis, though, things go south quickly. In a last-ditch effort to save the branch, they make a snap decision to throw a real rager of a Christmas party at the office and invite Davis so he can see how great the company is and decide to give them his business after all.
So they do. And Davis comes. Hijinks ensue.
It’s not exactly to the movie’s credit so much as just a feature of its plot, but Office Christmas Party feels correctly calculated for a time when people are chafing against what’s either called political correctness or corporate rule-making, depending on who’s talking. It carefully steps around hot-button issues like income disparity by making the rich branch manager a selfless guy, and throws in some circa-2016 jokes, like Mary’s “non-denominational holiday sweater.”
So the raucous holiday party — a fixture in decades past but now replaced in many conventional American workplaces with more staid affairs that won’t result in complaints to HR — is a perfect setting to smash that all to pieces. The movie’s take is something like a mostly legal frat party for corporate drones, mixing familiar humdrum surroundings (a couple boring floors in a generic office building) with Santa handing out wrapped “personal massagers” from a Game of Thrones throne, an inappropriate ice sculpture that functions as a suggestive eggnog funnel, and people inventing new uses for not just the copier but the 3D printer.
So in Office Christmas Party there’s an element of carnival, in the traditional sense — of the natural order of things turned upside down — that’s thrilling, even by proxy. We all know that HR rules and cutbacks and never-ending meetings are never going away. But it’s fun to pretend what it would be like if they did for a night.
Curiously, Office Christmas Party suffers from playing it too safe
But. But. The writing here is awfully rough. A lot of the best work seems improvised, and not just because of Kate McKinnon’s presence. (A scene where she cuts loose and dances in a long sweater dress made more modest by a turtleneck dickey is among the highlights.) That’s because the more obviously scripted bits are set up from so far away that it’s like they’re being projected on the dark sky with a tractor beam. A conversation early on about how fast you’d have to go to jump a car across a split bridge is obviously set up for a plot point later. A tall Christmas tree in any scene is almost certain to get knocked over eventually. A close-up on Mary feeding the snow cannon with a square plastic bag of white fake snow is a pretty good indicator of what will happen soon. And so on.
In retrospect, though, Office Christmas Party’s cast may be both its biggest strength and its biggest weakness. Every actor in this movie is a seasoned comedian, and they are fun to watch. But they’re also cast exactly on type, from mean-boss Aniston (last seen in Horrible Bosses) to straight man Bateman to lovably overconfident partying boss Miller to Randall Park (Fresh Off the Boat) as that ubiquitous office standard, Fred-from-Accounting. Olivia Munn was always going to play a gorgeous nerd, because she pretty much always does. They’re all good at these roles. We’ve just seen them before.
As with most ensemble comedies, the movie’s biggest selling point is those actors. But the weak point is that they do almost nothing unexpected, and the best humor comes from the unexpected, the startling cognitive dissonance that happens when two things that don’t normally go together, do. Every one of these performers could have played another part in this movie with aplomb, and it probably would have made for a better movie. Predictability is a joy-killer.
Vance’s character is the only one who takes a sharp turn. It’s clear this will happen from the start, but getting a glimpse of him gone totally insane is probably the biggest kick the movie has to offer, the strongest catharsis of the order of things, ever so briefly, getting turned on its head. Office Christmas Party is about going too far in order to close a deal, but the movie, curiously, still plays it way too safe.
Office Christmas Party opens in theaters on December 9, 2016.