While watching Office Christmas Party it became obvious I was witnessing Hollywood bit by bit start it’s inexorable slide back to written comedy. This is not to say the movie is tight. It’s not. But it does have more structure than I’ve seen in a big budget Studio comedy.
There are attempts to set up jokes and plant seeds for later payoffs that would be largely absent in today’s modern improv-palooza. There’s more character setup and more of an attempt at character growth. A script is a wonderful thing.
While the presence of a script is clear, so also is, to some degree, a lack of originality. Josh Gordon and Will Speck, co-directors, have essentially given us Animal House set in the modern business world. They don’t really bring anything new to the table visually or message wise. But there is an atmosphere of optimism and a real sense of camaraderie that seeps through the edges of the film.
Zenotek, a data tech company, has fallen on hard times. It’s Chicago branch run by a loveable loser Clay (T.J. Miller) is one of the worst. Not even the talented and doggedly competent Tech Manager Josh (Jason Bateman) and his beautiful hacker co-worker Tracey (Olivia Munn) can keep this office afloat.
Enter Clay’s sister and interim C.E.O. Carol (Jennifer Aniston). She sweeps into Zenotek and announces layoffs, closures, and budget cuts. Since it’s a Christmas movie budget cuts, mean no Christmas party. Tracey and Josh try to pitch an idea that would save the company and revolutionize how we access the internet.
Carol is unimpressed. Her decree is final. As she leaves Clay makes a last ditch effort to appeal to her business sense; a deal is struck, and the plot is set into motion. They must get the Walter Davis (Courtney B. Vance) account. If they do, the branch can stay open, and everyone can keep their jobs. So naturally they have to throw the biggest, craziest, over the top, raver of a Christmas party ever.
It’s a tired concept, and you could be forgiven for thinking that years of improv comedy has diluted the big Studio’s ability to give us a condensed and well paced set up. It takes a while for the movie to really get going. Even when it does start to click there are periods where, like all party movies, they spend too much time just watching a party instead of setting up the next scene.
It’s the characters that give us the best moments of the movie. While the plot plays with trying to be a grand rebuke to modern day corporate culture and its profits over employee’s welfare mindset; it never really lands it. But through its characters the movie provide some truly sly and subversive material.
Tracey, Josh’s co-worker, and clear love interest is more than just a trope. She’s smart, confident, good at her job, and is never punished for either loving her work or wishing Josh would maybe look at her a bit differently.
Even Carol, who sweeps into the movie like a modern day Cruella DeVille, is given some depth. Aniston is clearly having fun playing the heel, a role she seems to enjoy playing. I was shocked though to discover the movie not only empathizing with her but also relieved to find out it wasn’t going to put her through hell for wanting her father’s business to succeed and demand her brother be better at his job.
Everyone does their best to try and keep Kate McKinnon from coming in and walking away with the movie. A futile effort but a valiant one. McKinnon once again shows she is one of the best comedic talents working today. Her Mary, the H.R. director, is a weird, yet grounded, creation. She plays Mary with a sense of manic, strange, slightly repressed, glee.
The real subversiveness of the movie is it’s shredding of stereotypes. Whether it’s the simple act of women supporting women, seeing the black security guard Carla (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) actually be treated with respect and actually be good at her job, the rich white straight male say he wishes he was luckier beside being a straight white male, or even the fact it’s the women who brainstorm and save the day. And Zenotek. And the internet.
It’s refreshing to see a diverse raunchy Christmas movie that doesn’t punish it’s women for daring to want something material or for wanting more than one thing. Yes, the movie holds almost no surprises, plot-wise. All the actors perform exactly as well as you hope they would. But it more than makes up for it by giving us characters we’ve seen a thousand times behaving and being treated in ways we haven’t.
Office Christmas Party is a mixed bag. It works best when it plays within the structure of a story. Though the movie feels longer than it is, it never overstays its welcome. Everyone shows up to play, and everyone pulls their weight. I just wish they had better material to work with.