Through how many tableaux of bad behavior have we suffered over the last several years? And I’m talking of only the party movie kind. The slow-mo drinking and dancing. The messy floors. The pounding dance music. The people making out or throwing up or swinging punches. The appliances hurled out windows. The drugs splayed out on tables, smoked up in clouds, or dusted over crowds. The bottles broken, syrup spilled, clothes flung, cars crashed, and animals wandering. We’ve seen this in basically every other R-rated comedy of the past decade or so. It no longer has much in the way of shock value, and is only a fun party by proxy if the mix of naughty to nice is exactly right. (Think more Sisters than Project X.) By now it’s a predictable and hyperbolic version of the lampshades on heads or pizzas on turntables of yesteryear. Now here’s Office Christmas Party, the latest excuse to stage the same wild party behavior.
Proficiently and competently directed by Josh Gordon and Will Speck (of similarly sturdy slight comedies Blades of Glory and The Switch) the whole thing contrives a reason to get rowdy. Set almost exclusively on a couple floors in a Chicago skyscraper, where a tech company (an old-school kind, more Dell than Uber) has its annual Christmas party cancelled. The CEO (Jennifer Aniston) threatens cuts, but her brother (T.J. Miller), as head of this branch, goes behind her back to throw the biggest bash yet. It’s a last ditch effort to pitch an older businessman (Courtney B. Vance) on signing a new contract, the only thing that’ll keep layoffs out of the picture for the next quarter. This leaves decent middle managers (like Jason Bateman and Olivia Munn) scrambling to make sure the wild night saves everyone’s jobs. The stage is set for a commentary on good people trapped in a debased culture – between ruthless profiteering on the one hand, total anarchic largess on the other. But the movie mostly throws that overboard in hopes we’ll root for the corporation.
There are some funny ideas here: a huge company run like a family squabble, markets driven by a rapacious need for constant growth, employees listless and only motivated by fear of firings, society a mindless rabble willing to throw off bounds of decorum at the first opportunity. There’s something perceptive under the surface. Tip the whole thing five or ten degrees in perspective and tone and you’d have a vicious satire of modern America. Alas, it’s just another glossy spread of dumb sitcom excess and juvenile antics dressed up as cutting loose and living it up with no connection to any reality. Watch Miller’s rich dope spend money on a living nativity, huge Christmas trees, a DJ, endless booze, profane ice sculptures, and let the vibrantly devolving bacchanal begin. It’s like Wolf of Wall Street without the bite or wit. Instead we’re just supposed to find it amusing, as wish fulfillment or vicarious thrill. How sad if this is any fantasy earnestly harbored. Worse still the implications in letting quiet, dull, dutiful good-behaving office parties be the enemy. What’s wrong with a simple cheese plate and a non-alcoholic beverage between polite work acquaintances and assorted colleagues?
In some ways, it makes more sense as a disaster movie. Like The Towering Inferno it gathers a lot of characters in a tower and introduces them all with an emotional or professional loose end that’ll be tidily resolved in chaos to come. But that movie had the good decency not to ask us to be primarily invested in whether or not the company that built the structure would be able to make money off the madness. Office Christmas Party is smartly cast down to the smallest role with fun scene-stealers – Kate McKinnon, Jillian Bell, Rob Corddry, Vanessa Bayer, Randall Park, Sam Richardson, Karan Soni, Jamie Chung, Abbey Lee, Andrew Leeds, Matt Walsh, and many more recognizable to anyone who has seen a comedy or two lately. They’re just given routine sitcom plots to enact through the party – a guy who tries to hire an escort to act like his fake girlfriend; a guy who doesn’t tell his boss he has a better job offer; a woman trying to avoid a co-worker after learning something embarrassing about him. They wring some pleasant entertainment, personalities and a brisk pace papering over the fundamental emptiness at its core: a bland celebration of a vulgar holiday spirit, with capitalism and commercialism for all.