'Corporate Animals': Film Review | Sundance 2019

CORPORATE ANIMALS Still 1 - Sundance Publicity -H 2019
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Doesn't make much of its talent-stuffed ensemble.

Demi Moore plays a self-absorbed boss who gets her team trapped in a cave in Patrick Brice's grisly comedy.

Eight employees at a failing company get stuck in a cave in Patrick Brice's Corporate Animals, which waits surprisingly long to ask the most obvious question: How long will it take for them to give themselves permission to kill the cartoonishly self-absorbed boss (Demi Moore) who got them there? Brice, director of the unsettling Creep films and the well-liked The Overnight, assembles a talented comic ensemble here; but pairing violence and corporate team-building is old hat these days, and Sam Bain's script is about as fresh as the air in a cave nine people without toothbrushes have shared for a week. A streaming or cable sale based on cast familiarity is the best this effort should hope for.

Moore's Lucy Vanderton runs a cosmetics company that also sells Edible Cutlery, a product whose sales pitch is that plastic utensils are the biggest threat there is to the environment. (A slightly off-message corporate promo that starts the film is about the weird-funniest thing here.) She has brought eight employees to an outdoor adventure center run by Ed Helms' Brandon for a day of team-building, and in no time the group has accidentally stuck a spear of jagged wood through the leg of intern Aidan (Calum Worthy).

Without even pretending to explain why this mishap doesn't end the day's activities, the film sends the crew (Aidan included) off on what is meant to be an unchallenging hike. But Lucy insists on sending them past danger signs onto an advanced route, spelunking through tight passages into nearby caves. Brandon shrugs: It's a stupid idea, but they all signed waivers, so why not?

Along the way, co-workers who are out of Lucy's earshot share workplace gossip (the company's insolvent) and misgivings about their boss: Jess (Jessica Williams) and Freddie (Karan Soni) learn that she has promised both of them the same promotion. Their concerns temporarily vanish when, after crawling on their bellies in the dark for a while, they emerge into a large chamber with impressive rock formations. Then a seismic tremor drops giant rocks into the cave, closing the tunnel they just emerged from and crushing one of the group to death.

Realizing there's no way out, they try to settle in to await rescue. A dramatic "DAY ONE" title card promises the wait won't be short.

Bain was a co-creator of the British cult comedy series Peep Show — whose success owes more to chemistry between leads David Mitchell and Robert Webb than to any other factor — but, having written himself into a geological corner, he doesn't demonstrate a lot of imagination here. A pair of co-workers hook up; an ethically problematic long-running relationship is exposed; jokes are made about where to poop and whether drinking one's own urine makes sense. And then, of course, comes cannibalism.

Debates over the ethics of eating an already-dead human are amusing enough, but the pic somehow rides the topic into the ground without using it to raise the dramatic stakes: Days after becoming cannibals and accepting the likelihood of their own one-by-one deaths, the trapped co-workers are, implausibly, still having heated arguments about office politics and affirmative action.

Slow starvation and claustrophobia would probably provoke deeper freakouts than we see here, but Bain contrives an interesting way to accelerate things, provoking hallucinations in two of his characters. The ensuing visions are less amusing than they should be. Much better is the left-field weirdness being endured by that poor intern, whose leg injury is turning gangrenous and causing a briefly hilarious mental breakdown.

Veteran comic actors make the most of the not very original (though well-timed) one-liners the script gives them. But the movie's last act drags almost as slowly for viewers as for the gang in the cave, and the story's resolution is no better.

Production companies: Snoot Entertainment, Pacific Electric Picture Co.
Cast: Jessica Williams, Karan Soni, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Martha Kelly, Dan Bakkedahl, Calum Worthy, Jennifer Kim, Nasim Pedrad, Ed Helms, Demi Moore
Director: Patrick Brice
Screenwriter: Sam Bain
Producers: Mike Falbo, Ed Helms, Jess Wu Calder, Keith Calder
Executive producer: Paul O. Davis
Director of photography: Tarin Anderson
Production designer: David Meyer
Costume designer: Stacy Ellen Rich
Editor: Chris Donlon
Composer: Michael Yezerski
Casting directors: Justine Arteta, Kim Davis-Wagner
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Midnight)
Sales: UTA, ICM, Protagonist Pictures

85 minutes