OFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY. Jason Bateman, Olivia Munn, T. J. Miller, Jillian Bell, Courtney B. Vance, Kate McKinnon, Randall Park, Jennifer Aniston. Directed by Josh Gordon, Will Speck. 105 minutes. Rated MA15+ (Strong crude sexual humour, drug use and nudity).
There are two movies struggling against one another at the heart of ‘Office Christmas Party’. One wants to be a wild party epic, along the lines of ‘Animal House’, where nothing is off limits and no set piece too outrageous. The other wants to be a feel-good dramedy about coworkers who set about saving their beleaguered branch of a tech giant, loosely comparable to ‘Office Space’. Having concurrent stories isn’t unusual in successful comedies – ‘Superbad’ is both romance and coming of age tale, ‘Groundhog Day’ is a high concept fantasy and a rom com. However, they don’t quite gel properly in ‘Christmas Party’, and the result is that the party becomes dull and saps the momentum from the other narrative.
Zenotek is a tech firm that specializes in data storage, or something like that. Their Chicago branch is run by Clay Vanstone (T.J. Miller), a sweet but goofy manchild whose father founded the company. His sister Carol (Jennifer Aniston) is the embattled CEO of Zenotek, and threatens to shut down Clay’s branch due to poor performance. Clay’s 2IC Josh (Jason Bateman) and Josh’s co-worker/love interest Tracey (Olivia Munn) come up with a plan to save Clay’s bacon – if they can land the monster contract of the firm of Walter Davis (Courtney B. Vance), then Carol won’t be able to shut them down. And how does one go about winning the contract of an ‘old school’ business man? With a gratuitous, alcohol-drenched party of course, just the thing to show him that Zenotek isn’t like all the other soulless tech companies.
Most of the other characters in the picture are sketches defined by a single trait. Clay is a doofus. Carol is mean. Tracey is smart. Alison (Vanessa Bayer) is a single mother. Jeremy (Rob Corddry) is a sleaze. Mary in HR (Kate McKinnon) is an oddball. Nate (Karan Soni) doesn’t have a girlfriend but pretends to, resulting in his hiring of an escort for the party. Despite this one-note characterization from writers Justin Malen, Laura Solon and Dan Mazer, I still managed to get invested in their fates as part of the classic tradition of the underdog story. What the writing does less well is actual jokes. It’s not that funny – I managed maybe three audible laughs in the whole runtime.\
This frustration with the comedy bleeds through into the other half – the party. A party movie should either make you want to join the party or be so outlandish that some part of you is reluctantly impressed. Neither applied here. It’s idea of a wild party is an enormous throng fueled by copious booze – not that surprising, but it doesn’t get much beyond this. Come to think of it, there are narcotics too (Walter copping a faceful of cocaine from a snow machine is one of the movie’s fresher ideas). Not only is the party stale, it’s also chopped together by editors Jeff Groth and Evan Henke with the misconception that strobe-like montages set to jackhammering electronic music will convey fun. Not so. If anything, the pauses in the story to remind the viewer how ‘insane’ the party is get taxing, and drain any energy that’s developing in the workplace comedy side of the narrative.
I like the movie’s cast. They’re all talented and funny in the right projects. I’d hazard a guess that any informal gatherings that they had during the shoot may have made for more entertaining viewing that the finished film. It’s a compliment to them but not to the film.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out December 8.
Entertainment One Films.