Ian at the Movies
Maybe Office Christmas Party deserves credit for the simplicity of its title (and the title cards in its trailers). Everything you need to know is in the name of the movie. There’s no attempt to be cute or clever. And what’s really being sold here is a comedy with T.J. Miller, Jason Bateman, Kate McKinnon, Olivia Munn and Jennifer Aniston. Is a fancy title really required?
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Ian at the Movies
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- Rampage works because it doesn’t try to adapt the video game
- Why Tomb Raider and Alicia Vikander break the bad video game movie trend
- Game Night uses all its pieces well, notably Rachel McAdams, for a twisty story full of laughs
- Black Panther is like no other Marvel film, reaching a higher bar as a result: 5 takeaways
With such a basic title and marketing, the fear was that directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck (The Switch, Blades of Glory) would simply let the cameras roll and let his stars just improv their way to laughs. That’s not necessarily a bad way to go. But when that’s the approach, you can sometimes see the actors trying to work their way to the joke. And maybe the director then cobbles pieces of different takes to try and maximize laughs, making for kind of a disjointed feel. (Most of Judd Apatow’s films suffer from this, though it certainly makes his movies stand out from others.)
But the script by Justin Malen, Laura Solon and Dan Mazer (with an additional three writers credited for the story) does appear to provide a blueprint for the actors to follow, rather than just a collection of skits and set pieces in which a very talented comedic cast can riff. Yes, the movie is largely about an office christmas party. Surprise! But the movie isn’t entirely based around the party, nor does most of it take place during the holiday bash. The story is largely about what happens before the party and the aftermath of the sort of raucous, debaucherous blowout that you’d expect from a movie like this.
If you haven’t seen the trailer and ads or didn’t feel you needed to know anything other than the guy from Silicon Valley, the woman from Saturday Night Live and Jennifer Aniston are in this movie (Jason Bateman is curiously missing from much of the marketing), the plot is almost as simple as its title. Miller plays the spoiled branch manager of a tech company built by his father. Much like Dunder-Mifflin’s Michael Scott, Clay Vanstone just wants his employees to like him and enjoy working at Zenotek. The big difference is that the employees actually like Clay and he has plenty of money from his father to do whatever he can to give his workers what they want.
But like any tech company, the product has to adapt to survive. Zenotek needs something new to contend with the big boys in the industry. Above all, Clay’s New York branch needs to attract some more big clients to spur quarterly growth. Clay’s sister, Carol (Aniston), is the company’s CEO and has her eye on the bottom line. She’s fueled by anger and jealousy over her brother always being favored by their father and not being held to the same standard she was. And with Clay’s branch not measuring up, she can finally do what their father never did and hold him accountable, rather than let him skate by.
However, as Clay and his senior staff argue their case, Carol offers a life preserver. If they can sign a wealthy client, Walter Davis (Courtney B. Vance), who’s considering companies like Dell and Cisco to supply the servers for his business, and land a $14 million contract he brings, that will save the branch and Clay won’t have to lay off 40 percent of the staff during the holiday season. Clay, his main financial guy (Bateman) and tech engineer (Munn) meet with Davis to make their pitch, but the word is on the street about Zenotek’s possible layoffs, and he doesn’t want to get involved with a business culture that he doesn’t like.
That’s when the lightbulb goes off for Clay. Throw the Christmas party that Carol has threatened to cancel because the branch can’t afford it and layoffs are coming, and show Davis that Zenotek is the kind of family business with happy employees that would be welcoming to his company and provide a great home. Davis reluctantly agrees, largely because he’s been a bit too buttoned up at work, is tired of the stiff corporate culture, and wants to let some air out during the holidays.
Casting Vance as Davis was a good choice. Though he had a highlight role earlier this year as Johnnie Cochran in The People vs. O.J. Simpson, Vance has largely made a career out of playing the bland figure of authority, whether it’s a doctor, police chief or assistant district attorney. He’s been the straight man, the one our main characters go to for guidance or approval in the TV shows and movies we watch.
But Office Christmas Party allows Vance to cut loose and show a comedic side he hasn’t often been allowed to display on screen. An accidental encounter with cocaine prompts Davis to tap into his wild side, and the Zenotek Christmas party is just the sort of place that will indulge him ripping off his tie and doing a few shots. Naturally, he does quite a bit more than that, which gets Clay and his mates into some trouble. But ultimately, that’s where this movie wants to be, following a group of friends and co-workers who genuinely like each other and want to save everyone’s jobs. Davis likes these guys, and so do we.
OK, Office Christmas Party is a dumb comedy and you can’t help but wonder why Aniston, Bateman, McKinnon, Munn and Miller aren’t doing something better. (Aniston is arguably a surprise, willing to take out her family issues on anyone looking for a fight with her Krav Maga training. At least the story tries to explain why she might be a bitch.) But during a time of year when family-friendly blockbusters and serious Oscar-baiting dramas are filling up theaters, it’s nice to have something that’s going to make you laugh — even if it’s not as entirely funny as it should be. Gordon and Speck frequently go for the easy jokes, banking on their talented cast to wring more laughs out of them. And they succeed.
The strength of this movie is most definitely in its cast. You know Miller will make you laugh, Bateman is always solid for straight man comedy, Munn is probably capable of being a leading comedic actress, and McKinnon is well on her way to getting there herself. Surround them with other funny actors like Rob Corddry, Vanessa Mayer, Jillian Bell, Randall Park, and Karan Soni, and every character on screen in each scene is good for some laughs. This is a deep ensemble, and it’s not wasted.
Office Christmas Party is a movie that might not age well. Many of the jokes and references made in the film apply to current culture (poking fun at the Fast and Furious franchise, and there’s even something of a tribute to Prince and David Bowie). It’s very much a 2016 film. But maybe what it lacks in shelf life can be made up with nostalgia for what’s been a relatively crappy year. It’s possible this could be a cult hit at holiday parties and get-togethers for years to come. (Personally, I can easily imagine turning this on at Christmas Eve or later in the evening on Christmas when I’ve had enough of family.) It’s a decently fun hour-and-a-half at the movies at the end of a year that really needs some laughs.