'Office Christmas Party'
Hollywood holiday movies don’t come much more generic than ‘Office Christmas Party’. If the painfully impersonal title didn’t give the game away, this is cookie-cutter comedy filmmaking at its most frustrating.
Every joke is forced and every attempt at squeezing in emotion falls flat. This thing is a big corporate product that’s been overthought for commercial viability so many times and in so many ways that any ounce of artistic intention was long ago stripped away. The cast is overqualified, though. That brings in some laughs. Too bad they had so little to work with.
‘Office Christmas Party’ takes place in (wait for it) an office setting just in time for the big holiday celebration. Jason Bateman stars as a cuddly and befuddled Jason Bateman type. This one’s named Josh Parker. He’s been working at a generic internet company for years and has made buddies with the boss’ spoiled son, Clay (T.J. Miller). Since Daddy McInternet died, Clay has been put in charge of the original branch while his uptight sister, Carol (Jennifer Aniston), is now interim CEO. Clay’s been screwing up, since his spoiled party lifestyle has prevented him from learning how to run a business. Josh helps, but not enough. Carol wants to shut down the office out of sibling rivalry, greed, and to retain her CEO title full-time. She decides to make that announcement right before Christmas, cancelling the big office party and giving Josh and Clay only 48 hours to land a big deal that will save the company. Fortunately, such a deal could be saved at a sweet party, and the company’s computer genius (Olivia Munn) has been nursing a secret internet project that could be huge. (Also, she’s secretly in love with the recently divorced Josh, and vice versa). What a wild night!
According to IMDb, there are six credited screenwriters on ‘Office Christmas Party’, but watching the movie it feels like there were probably even more. This thing is so over-choreographed and over-thought that there isn’t an ounce of life to the narrative or characters. Every scene and moment rigidly fits into Screenwriting 101 structure so overtly that, by the time the first act is finished, it’s easy to predict every plot twist and character beat from that point on. All the big jokes are set up so glaringly that even those completely lacking in a sense of humor should be able to shout out punchlines before they arrive.
The love stories are all contrived. The sweeping happy ending moments are nauseatingly forced. Even the big internet twist that the filmmakers keep in their back pocket until the finale is gag-inducingly overplayed. The movie feels more like an adaptation of memos passed between executives demanding clarity and commerciality than a story told out of personal interest or passion. Co-directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck (‘Blades of Glory’, ‘The Switch’) were apparently just assigned to put cameras in all the predetermined spots and then follow the instructions they were given.
Thankfully, the cast is far better than the script deserves and manage to deliver some laughs. Bateman has a breezy naturalism that almost makes his generic protagonist feel like a human. Jennifer Aniston does her one-note bitchy boss thing just fine. Olivia Munn is cartoonishly unbelievable as a computer genius, but delivers nice chemistry with Bateman. Miller is hampered by his exposition duties and feels robotic when spitting out lines that he’s required to say, but sparks to life whenever he gets a chance to improvise in some of his trademark eccentricity.
The most consistent laughs come from supporting players who were handed characters defined by less than one note, yet clearly got to improvise gags into the script they were shackled with. In particular, the dependably lovable/crazy Jillian Bell plays an unexpected pimp with a big heart and a gun, which is a damn delight. Rob Corddry does some nice Rob Corrdry-style filth through a smile. Vanessa Bayer and Randall Park share one solid scene together. Best of all, Kate McKinnon plays an impossibly uptight HR lady with an unhinged comedic insanity that feels like it’s from a better and more cartoonish movie. She’s clearly having fun and not particularly interested in serving the story as much as cramming in as many loopy WTF moments as possible.
Yes, ‘Office Christmas Party’ has some chuckles, which will be enough for undemanding viewers to consider the comedy a success. Unfortunately, there aren’t nearly as many as needed given all the talent on screen, and the movie feels like a painful slog whenever scenes serve the story rather than setting up actors to deliver something unexpected. It tries too hard to be edgy without ever being remotely close to subversive. It tries too hard to pull heartstrings without ever providing a single human to care about or plotline worth investing in. This is a corporate Christmas product offering only manufactured cheer. I suppose if you’re going to make a comedy this dull and irritating, the least you could do is hire actors this talented to try to make it work. But even that feels like a waste. These people could make ‘Office Christmas Party’ in their sleep, and did. Why not let them do something they all actually cared about instead? Even ‘Bad Santa 2’ looks inspired by comparison.