'Office Christmas Party': Film Review

A workplace comedy shouldn’t feel this strenuous.

A blowout bash is the hoped-for solution to a tech company's woes in a comedy starring Jason Bateman, Jennifer Aniston, T.J. Miller and Olivia Munn.

Call it a sign of the times or a sign of the movie’s lump-of-coal sensibility, but in the third feature from writer-directors Will Speck and Josh Gordon, the Christmas miracle is — drumroll, please — internet connectivity. That might have packed a zeitgeist punch, but Office Christmas Party hasn’t the slightest satiric edge. Pitting a big-hearted boss against his Scrooge of a sister, it’s a frenetic grab bag of strained shtick, however expertly delivered by ace comic performers.

The film — which reteams Jason Bateman and Jennifer Aniston, stars of the filmmakers’ second outing, The Switch — offers none of the goofy bliss of their directing debut, Blades of Glory. It does gather plenty of recognizable workplace types, though, and a few laugh-worthy one-offs, in the story of the poorly run Chicago branch of a tech company and its party to end all parties. Box-office revelers are sure to flock to this bash.

The least interesting of the Zenotek office inhabitants are Bateman’s bland every guy, freshly divorced chief technical officer Josh, and his lead engineer, Tracey (Olivia Munn). She’s the innovative risk-taker to his man of caution, or so the dialogue reminds us at regular intervals. There’s an obvious but hardly urgent romantic undercurrent between them that’s as persuasive as her in-the-works brainchild, a ground-shifting Web-access system that just might save the office, if only she can work out the wrinkles in time.

Branch president Clay, played with clumsy sweetness by T.J. Miller, of Silicon Valley, has inherited the job from his dad. He’s an overgrown kid who hasn’t a corporate bone in his body, and his approach to bottom-line matters is not unlike that of Tom Hanks’ character's in Big. The Santa suit he dons for the titular shindig is more than a costume; not only is Clay determined to save every employee’s job from his hatchet-swinging sister, Carol (Aniston), but he aims to give out bonuses, too.

Sweeping in on her Louboutins with crunched numbers at her fingertips, Carol is the yin to Clay’s yang. Unless he can somehow land a huge deal in the hours that remain before the fiscal quarter closes, she’ll lay off almost half the staff. Oh, and she also cancels that afternoon’s holiday mixer, an obvious high point on the calendar for HR director Mary (Kate McKinnon, reliably wacky), who has already assembled the annual cheese plate, and whose multidenominational holiday sweater is the standout among Karen Patch’s costume designs.

The bash goes on despite Carol, ratcheted up to bacchanal status in hopes of convincing potential client Walter (Courtney B. Vance) that the company is happy and healthy. But despite the presence of a DJ, a live nativity scene, a Bulls star (Jimmy Butler) and an eggnog luge (don’t ask), the party doesn’t really get started until Walter receives an inadvertent snow-machine blast of cocaine straight into his nasal passages.

Amid Speck and Gordon’s exhausting concoction of comedy-of-cruelty slapstick, wishful thinking and apocalypse, there are bright glimpses of well-played character farce, as when Clay’s assistant, single mother Allison (Vanessa Bayer), discovers that a new hire (Randall Park) has mommy issues. And the fact that Rob Corddry’s terrifically dyspeptic Jeremy heads the customer service department is a fine joke in itself.

But the zingiest bits involve IT supervisor Nate (Karan Soni, of Deadpool), the hooker (Abbey Lee) he hires to play his imaginary girlfriend and her female pimp, a take-charge boss if ever there was one, portrayed with venomous snap by Jillian Bell.

With all the sharp comic timing on hand, this party should feel lighter, swifter, more agile. But against its high-rise settings and street-level action — a convincing combination of Atlanta sets and Chi-Town exteriors — the film struggles to find a steady comic groove. It doesn’t feint; it pummels. Maybe there is no job-saving Santa after all.

Distributor: Paramount
Production companies: DreamWorks Pictures and Reliance Entertainment present a Bluegrass Films/Entertainment 360 production
Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Jason Bateman, Olivia Munn, T.J. Miller, Jillian Bell, Vanessa Bayer, Courtney B. Vance, Rob Corddry, Kate McKinnon, Abbey Lee, Sam Richardson, Jamie Chung, Randall Park, Karan Soni, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Jimmy Butler
Directors: Will Speck, Josh Gordon
Screenwriters: Justin Malen, Laura Solon, Dan Mazer
Story by: Jon Lucas, Scott Moore, Timothy Dowling
Producers: Scott Stuber, Guymon Casady, Daniel Rappaport
Executive producers: Josh Gordon, Will Speck, Beau Bauman, Richard Vane, Matthew Hirsch
Director of photography: Jeff Cutter
Production designer: Andrew Laws
Costume designer: Karen Patch
Editors: Jeff Groth, Evan Henke
Composer: Theodore Shapiro
Casting: Jeanne McCarthy, Leslie Woo

Rated R, 105 minutes