‘Office Christmas Party’ Review: A Comedic Lump of Coal
Too many Hollywood comedies, Office Christmas Party included, seem to use up all their creativity in the casting office. Filmmakers assemble these impressive lineups of acting talent — and Office Christmas Party has as good a collection of actors as any 2016 comedy — and then sets them adrift in dumb stories with no jokes, hoping their evident charisma and endless improvisations will deliver enough laughs to fill out a decent trailer. The cast of this movie is funny. The movie itself? Not so much.
If you know the title, you know the gist of the plot. Carol Vanstone (Jennifer Aniston), the Scrooge-like interim CEO of a middling tech company named Zenotech, wants to layoff 40 percent of her employees of its Chicago branch, which is run by her sweet, dumb brother Clay (T.J. Miller). Hoping to save everyone’s jobs, Clay, his CTO Josh (Jason Bateman), and Josh’s lead programmer Tracey (Olivia Munn) hatch a scheme to convince a client (Courtney B. Vance) to sign a lucrative contract with Zenotech. But Vance’s Walter has major concerns about Carol and the office culture of fear she encourages. So the team hope to change his mind by inviting him to the ultimate office Christmas party, where Walter gets to see what a great company Zenotech is and the audience gets to see the requisite sex, profanity, and miscellaneous debauchery they went looking for when they bought a ticket to a movie called Office Christmas Party.
While Clay and company try to salvage the Chicago branch, directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck (Blades of Glory, The Switch) wander through a variety of subplots involving other Zenotech employees. Uptight HR manager Mary (Kate McKinnon) feuds with vulgar customer service manager Jeremy (Rob Corddry); Clay’s assistant Allison (Vanessa Bayer) starts a tentative flirtation with Fred (Randall Park), which leads to a profoundly uncomfortable sex scene when he reveals an unusual fetish. Dorky techie Nate (Karan Soni) must finally make good on a constantly mentioned unseen girlfriend, so he hires an escort named Savannah (Abbey Lee) to play the part of his romantic partner for the night. She, in turn, introduces the only character that actually provides a couple hilarious scenes, her perky but menacing pimp, Trina (Jillian Bell).
Bell has a great exchange with Soni and Lee, and later a solidly funny follow-up with Miller. Fortune Feimster somehow manages to steal an entire scene from Aniston riffing on the absurdity of the name Carol. That’s about it in the laugh-out-loud department; there’s more product placement for beer in Office Christmas Party than memorable jokes. There are things that I guess are theoretically supposed to be humorous; some “wild” nudity and sexual situations, assorted drug use, and Jason Bateman performing an intimate act on an ice luge filled with egg nog. For whatever it’s worth, Office Christmas Party earns its R-rating. But raunchy isn’t necessarily the same thing as funny.
There’s a little lip service paid to current economic anxieties — the threat of jobs getting shipped overseas gets raised once or twice — but the film barely ventures into the world of corporate satire. Instead, it’s more like a bad knockoff of Wedding Crashers and The Hangover that just happens to be set in an office (co-written, in fact, by original Hangover writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore). For a movie about a tech company, it also has a shockingly bad grip on how technology actually works; it seems to know about as much about how you get on the internet as my late grandmother, whose VCR flashed “12:00” until the day she died.
With a cast this good and this likable, it’s hard to completely hate Office Christmas Party. Still, with a cast this good, it’s also hard to believe how consistently dull the film is. Two editors, eight producers, six writers, fifteen credited-above-the-title stars, and two directors worked on Office Christmas Party. How many people does it take to make a good comedy?