OFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY – Review
“It’s that time of year….” for another big holiday themed comedy. We’ve had a big family yuletide mix of laughs and tears with ALMOST CHRISTMAS, that’s, ahem, almost a month old now. That bit of tinsel joined a long list of similar movie comedies like LOVE THE COOPERS and a film now considered an annual viewing tradition for many, NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CHRISTMAS VACATION. Yes, they’re all holiday hijinks with the family, but that other family is largely ignored. I’m speaking of the “workplace family”, the folks you bond with while “on the job” (many “workaholics” spent more time with them than their spouses and kids). Ah, the studios got the hint, so the newest movie present under the big multiplex tree is all set to be unwrapped. Looks like we’re all invited to the big OFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY.
The film begins with a tough pre-holiday event for Josh Parker (Jason Bateman) as he finalizes his divorce, He tries to look on the bright side while walking to his job at a Chicago-based data service company. Unfortunately moral there is more than a bit down. Supervisor Nate (Karan Soni) endures merciless teasing from his co-workers who believe his “always outta’ town” supermodel girlfriend is fiction. Executive secretary and newly single mom Allison (Vanessa Bayer) fights on the phone with her reckless ex. Mary (Kate McKinnon), the up-tight head of human resources, annoys those that aren’t on the straight and narrow (“button up that blouse!”). And the pessimistic Jeremy (Rob Corddry) always seems to be ready to “blow a gasket”. Fortunately Josh is team-mates (and perhaps a bit more) with the resident IT wizard Tracey (Olivia Munn) who’s quick with a wisecrack and ideas for new projects. Plus Josh is great pals with the branch’s boss, and son of the company founder, Clay Vanstone (T.J. Miller), a fun, generous fella’ who’s looking forward to giving his employees a big holiday party. All seems to be a go for a “blow-out” that will allow everybody to “blow off some steam”. Then big trouble arrives in stiletto heels, it’s Clay’s stepsister Carol (Jennifer Aniston), who oversees all the company’s outlets. She’s just closed the Orlando branch and has set the flagship office in her cost-cutting sights. Unless Clay and his team can land a big fish, namely a tech mega-company repped by Walter Davis (Courtney B. Vance) who’s only in town for a couple of days, the ax will fall. Oh, and there will be no holiday party, either (what a humbug!). Clay, Josh, and Tracey scurry over to a swank hotel to meet with the “button-down” Davis. He’s not impressed, so Clay plays a hunch and invites him to the big company Christmas party that night. But with just hours to go, can they put together a bash that will save their jobs? Really, what could possibly go wrong?
The calibre of the comedy dream team gathered for this flick is truly amazing. Leader of the pack is the always dry, understated Bateman who still doing a riff on his “Arrested Development” TV role, namely the voice of reason trying to stay afloat in a sea of insanity. His skill at getting big laughs from subtle facial expressions and line delivery is truly impressive. Frequent co-star Aniston (is this their fourth, fifth, or tenth movie?) is basically doing a less sexually aggressive spin on her HORRIBLE BOSSES man-eater. She’s still intimidating as she makes it clear that her threats are very real. Usual funny sidekick player Miller really swings for the fences in more of a big league, or lead, role. Unfortunately we’ve seen this “man-child” persona before and can’t help wonder if the script made a pitstop at Will Ferrell’s doorstep. Munn gets to show off more of her playful sassy, sexy side here than in many of her recent roles ( RIDE ALONG 2 particularly). Corddry has little to do other than reprise his “angry frat-boy” jerk from his HOT TUB gigs. A big surprise is the energetic performance from Vance, usually a somber, serious actor (recently winning awards as Johnnie Cochran in the TV OJ docudrama) who appears to relish the chance to cut loose and get goofy. Oh, and there’s not one but two current SNL stars. Bayer (who was in TRAINWRECK last year) is one of the story’s more sympathetic characters as her smiles mask her frustrations with her ex and with a possible new suitor. McKinnon, the true shining light of the recent GHOSTBUSTERS reboot, brings her usual focused commitment to the prudish Mary, but her talent is wasted on a role that goes in a most obvious direction. We’re just waiting for her to unleash her “wild side” (she does “rock” a “non-denominational holiday sweater”). Sam Richardson of TV’s “Veep” wrings some laughs as the office drone turned clumsy, clunky “hip hop” DJ. Randall Park, THE INTERVIEW’s subject, has an hilariously awkward romantic encounter with Bayer. Two funny ladies score big laughs with their brief work here. Jillian Bell (23 Jump Street) is Trina, the boss of a, uh, “escort service” who goes from pleasant “sing song”-voiced people-pleaser to vicious “gangsta” pimp at the drop of a hat. But guilty of “grand theft larceny” as she steals her scene with Aniston is the hysterical Fortune Feimster, now on TV’s “the Mindy Project” as Aniston’s chattering Uber driver who delivers a truly clever rant on the name “Carol”. It’s no wonder she delivers the film’s final chuckle.
Oh, if only the finished film were worthy of this all-star cast. It’s like assembling Marvel’s Avengers to bust jaywalkers. They’re cast adrift in this murky mess of a script, credited to six (!) writers, which meanders aimlessly. I was often wondering if the actors were pressured to come up with better bits on set (or think them up after hours). Too many punchlines never connect and land with a loud thud, or are greeted with silence. Plus the constant shots of folks over-indulging gets tiresome (as Gene and Roger remarked about watching somebody play a video game), just as in last year’s SISTERS. The “rom-com’ subplot never surprises, and the “save the day” finale is telegraphed from the first ten minutes. Oh, and the flick commits the worst crime of comedy movies: All the laughs are in the trailer! When they occur we think “Oh, I recall that from the TV spot on SNL”. And here’s a private pet peeve. It’s set in Chicago (the offices are across from the big Picasso sculpture, for gosh sake!) and the credits proclaim “filmed in Atlanta”. Just as with THE BOSS, c’mon! Durn’ “bean-counters’! Directing duo (two directors and six screenwriters!) Josh Gordon and Will Speck make the movie feel like we’re enduring a real interminable party that just will never end, one where you wish the host would start turning off the lights and the music. At the film’s final moments we’ve suffering from a “cinematic hangover” and filled with regret for all the missed comic opportunities. These wonderfully talented performers deserve a better vehicle than the sloppy OFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY.
2 Out of 5