Imagine the film that Office Christmas Party could have been if it had assembled a script to go along with that spectacular cast.
A frustrating trend has cropped up in the American comedy over the past few years, one that you may be familiar with if you’ve read enough of my articles or even just gone and watched enough of these films yourself. These films assemble a murderer’s row of talented, charming, charismatic comic performers, drop them into a scenario – not a plot, or a structured series of events, a scenario, one that’s maybe two sentences long – and then expects them to craft jokes and characters wholesale because somebody either forgot or couldn’t be bothered to write a script. There’ll be one or two big setpieces they can parrot in the trailers, and they’ll be telegraphed so far in advance that it will feel insultingly lazy, as if everybody involved thinks we really are stupid enough to not notice the difference between a scripted gag and wholesale improv, but otherwise the cast are left to flounder.
Office Christmas Party, unsurprisingly given that intro, is wholly endemic of the current state of the American comedy film, as the genre continues to somehow combine the worst aspects of the works of Judd Apatow and Todd Phillips into completely worthless wastes of time and money. What hurts most about Office Christmas Party being completely devoid of anything approaching a script is that its cast, much like the cast of last year’s similarly wasted Search Party, is stuffed full of a dream team of modern comic performers. Jason Bateman, T.J. Miller, Kate McKinnon, Vanessa Bayer, Randall Park, Jillian Bell… and that’s just a small sample. These are funny people, proven comic talents capable of raising whatever material they are handed into something better, that, with a script filled with characters and structured jokes backing them up, could help create an all-time comedy classic, at best.
Instead, Office Christmas Party drops its supremely over-qualified cast into a scenario with absolutely no script backing them up, beyond the most generic and cookie-cutter templates and archetypes possible. Even worse than that, though, is how the film predominately asks its cast to do nothing more than play to type, as if their mere existences are supposed to fill in the black hole where actual characterisation should be. Jason Bateman plays a Jason Bateman type (a loyal sane-man who plays it too safe), T.J. Miller plays a T.J. Miller type (a loud irresponsible goofball with a heart of gold), Olivia Munn plays the hot geek love interest, Jamie Chung and Rob Corddry play the characters who are actively disdainful of even having to be here with Corddry committing so totally to the bit that one almost gets the impression that he really is disdainful of having to be here. Woman of the moment Kate McKinnon, so phenomenal in Ghostbusters, is dropped into the role of the excessively-uptight Human Resources manager and, since she has clearly been given absolutely no other guidance as to her character, resorts to desperately gurning her face into various painful-looking contortions, almost like a dire warning of what can happen when the talents she displayed in Ghostbusters are left without a strong-enough direction.
And that kind of predictability and desperation abounds throughout the entire film, at least when it is not openly wasting people like Vanessa Bayer by refusing to give them even one attempted-funny trait to work with. Will the socially-awkward nerd who lies about having a super-hot girlfriend from out of state (Karan Soni) have his plan to hire an escort to pose as her backfire spectacularly, yet still end up with a girlfriend by evening’s end? Will Jason Bateman rebound from his long, messy divorce by finally hooking up with Olivia Munn, who has been pining after him for months now? Will Jennifer Aniston’s grinchy numbers-focussed executive who also happens to be T.J. Miller’s sister learn a little something about the holiday spirit and cut loose every once in a while? Will the party eventually go out of control and force an overly-intense security guard (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) to get to work shutting the place down? Will the finale involve saving the company in the most overly-complicated, over-plotted, and mostly joke-free way possible? Will Matt Walsh disappear entirely from the film after the opening scene despite being deserving of way more than that?
The answers to all these questions and more you’ll already know if you’ve ever watched a comedy film or a Christmas movie before, since Office Christmas Party also wants to double as an old-fashioned holiday morality play. The kind of film where those who are too rule-bound or too grouchy or refuse to see and treat their employees as people deserving of excessive irresponsible spending are forced to see the error of their ways and let a little bit of the holiday spirit into their hearts. But, in accordance with the rules of a morality play, that means that Office Christmas Party never truly cuts loose. For a supposedly raunchy hard-R rated bawdy holiday comedy, the craziest that proceedings get involve dick-shaped beer luges, brief shots of penises being used on 3D printers, and one character (played by Courtney B. Vance who is at least game for looking a fool) getting shot in the face with a packet of cocaine.
I’m not saying that the film should have been an ultra-disgusting and offensive ode to tasteless excess, the last thing we need is somebody thinking they’re the next John Waters, but I was expecting some kind of imagination here. Some kind of effort, some kind of passion. Tellingly, the film leaves the party entirely at about the hour mark to instead shift into the requisite action finale, even picking up some semblance of comic steam until things get brought to a screeching halt by the need to resolve the plot. Instead, Office Christmas Party plays things entirely too safe and conservatively. It’s only raunchy and transgressive purely in the most calculated and studio-mandated of ways. It actively avoids any attempts to use its premise to say or do much of anything at all – whether that be satirising corporate culture, ironically commenting on how faceless corporations suddenly “value” their employees around the time of the holidays, or, at the very least, finding more interesting stylistic techniques than needless super slo-mo set to hip-hop music or the exact same staging and editing for every single conversation.
This all said, I don’t hate Office Christmas Party. Partially because there’s so little here that getting worked up about it in any particularly strong way feels like a needless expenditure of energy better directed at more fulfilling pursuits. It’s also worthy of note that, apart from one or two jokes based around the aforementioned dick-shaped beer luge (because is it really an American comedy nowadays if it doesn’t feature at least one gay-panic “joke”), the film is actually surprisingly tolerant in terms of its attempts at jokes, avoiding anything that I personally noticed (so take this with a grain of salt) to be racist or sexist or homophobic or the like. That’s nice to see and it just makes me more disappointed that the script, if there even was a comprehensive script, didn’t feature more in the way of actual jokes to help dispel the false notion that you can’t make a funny comedy that’s not offensive to somebody.
Mainly, the reason why I don’t hate Office Christmas Party is because I at least consistently chuckled at it. The film almost never rises above chuckles, but watching a bunch of really likeable and very talented comic actors do their thing is enjoyable and, every now and again, they do stumble upon something approximating a joke. Not enough for a proper laugh, but enough to keep my mind from wandering elsewhere. The few times that actual laughs occur come as a direct result of Jennifer Aniston, as the no-nonsense yet petulant and vindictive sister of T.J. Miller who wants to close his branch down, and Jillian Bell, as an unhinged pimp who oscillates wildly between personable businesswoman and crazed maniac at the drop of a dime. Both of these are villains, of course, but they’re also the film’s highlights and the source of 90% of any positive responses I had because, shocker, they’re the only people in the film playing defined characters rather than archetypes they’re meant to fill in.
Aniston continues to prove that she can be a joy to watch when she’s allowed the freedom to cut loose like this, and Bell is so entertaining I found myself wishing that another great script would come across her desk sharpish so that her talents can be properly utilised. A late-film action scene involving Aniston utilising Krav Maga to fight her way through some of Bell’s cronies to rescue Miller, because this is an American comedy film in 2016 so there needs to be some Third Act action scenes for some reason, even got me thinking of a better movie right there. A film where Aniston is the lead protagonist as the exact same character except treated as the hero she is for dealing with all of these terrible idiots, and where the main plot involves her kicking arse up and down Chicago to rescue Miller from Bell and her various cronies in a bunch of choreographed action-comedy setpieces that require effort and imagination to pull off, whilst letting Aniston and Bell’s natural movie star charismas shine through by applying them to a decent script. You could even have Kate McKinnon as Aniston’s getaway driver!
In fact, stay right there, Reliance Entertainment and DreamWorks Pictures! I’m gonna go draft you up a copy of this million dollar idea right away!
Callie Petch is the undisputed king of this disco.