"Office Christmas Party" - One And A Half Stars For One And A Half Laughs

There are funny people in “Office Christmas Party.” There’s T.J. Miller (“Deadpool”) and Jason Bateman (“Zootopia”), Kate McKinnon (“Ghostbusters”) and Jillian Bell (“22 Jump Street”). There’s a committed turn from overly maligned sitcom dignitary Jennifer Aniston (let’s just agree to forget “Horrible Bosses 2”) and an enthusiastic performance from Courtney B. Vance, fresh off an Emmy win for his portrayal of Johnnie Cochran in FX’s astounding “The People V. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.” There’s also Olivia Munn. What there isn’t is any sense of purpose or fun – just tired R-rated antics cut and pasted from other, better comedies.

The film, whose title essentially doubles as its plot, has to pretend that NBC’s “The Office” didn’t already perfectly capture the absurdities of office Christmas parties (“Yaaaaankee swap!”). Thusly, the writers (Justin Malen, Dan Mazer, and Laura Solon) have two choices: come up with something new to say, or go farcically over the top. Unsurprisingly, they and directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck opt for a snow globe of sex, drugs, and booze, throwing smut and an ungodly number of characters into the air like a troupe of clowns juggling hand grenades. There are so many characters! None of them interesting in the slightest!

Take, for example, Josh Parker (Bateman). The movie’s opening sets up the recently divorced CTO of a tech company’s Chicago branch as its protagonist. Just as quickly, the screenplay quickly buries Josh under an avalanche of other, even fuzzier corporate archetypes, making its de facto lead little more than an observer in his own movie. He’s not even properly utilized as a straight man to Miller’s Clay Vanstone, the branch’s man-child manager.

Vanstone is at odds with his vindictive sister and company CEO Carol (Aniston) over holiday season cutbacks – Carol wants to wipe out nearly half of Clay’s workforce on her way to closing the branch – leading him and Josh to hatch a particularly harebrained plan. They’ll use their office’s annual Christmas party to close a deal with financial behemoth Walter Davis (Vance), therefore saving the branch and sparing their co-workers.

Among them: uptight human resources lady Mary (McKinnon), new hire Fred (Randall Park), annoying guy Jeremy (Rob Corddry), single mom Allison (Vanessa Bayer), undercover DJ Joel (Sam Richardson), and others. As the party ramps up and the cocaine starts flying (literally), the intended effect of gifted comedians in raucous situations instead comes off as uninspired physical comedy unfolding amidst a cacophony of fame-hungry extras. But the party scenes, as listless as they are, aren’t the worst of it. Rock bottom comes when the film unnecessarily pads its non-story.

Olivia Munn plays Tracey, tech person and love interest for Josh. In reality Tracey is just one of many underwhelming cogs in the machine, but the actress and her character are worthy of special mention: neither is so lucky as to fade into the din of dumb, repetitive jokes. No, she’s given an inexorably detailed subplot about an outlandish tech play that involves running Wi-Fi through the city’s power grid. It’s absurd and uninteresting, negotiating the outer limits of audience disbelief and boredom.

Perhaps the movie’s worst cast-related crime is that it can’t mine a single laugh from the terrifically talented Jillian Bell. One of the most undervalued comedic voices in Hollywood, the actress is marooned here as a belligerent pimp in a terrible subplot about an office employee (Karan Soni) hiring an escort (Abbey Lee) to pretend to be his model-girlfriend. It’s these kinds of slack storylines that turn an initially halfhearted movie into an awful one. When they finally intersect, the movie should end, but it doesn’t, being dragged from a lean 80 minutes to an excruciating 105.

In the end, there’s almost nothing to like in “Office Christmas Party,” not even for fans of any one of its twenty cast members. Nothing in it resembles reality, nor is it fantastical enough to justify such an uninspired premise. It’s not even notable as the worst Christmas comedy of the year (that would be last month’s “Bad Santa 2”). It only exists to be forgotten – once it’s pried a hundred million dollars or so from the clutches of hopelessly optimistic comedy fans. Don’t let it.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: December 9, 2016
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Josh Gordon, Will Speck
Screenwriters: Justin Malen, Dan Mazer, Laura Solon
Starring: Jason Bateman, T.J. Miller, Jennifer Aniston, Kate McKinnon, Olivia Munn, Randall Park, Vanessa Bayer, Sam Richardson, Jillian Bell, Rob Corddry, Abbey Lee, Karan Soni, Courtney B. Vance
MPAA Rating: R (for crude sexual content and language throughout, drug use and graphic nudity)