It seems that every year a new stoner Christmas comedy comes out, each lamer than the last. Office Christmas Party continues the lamentable trend with a comedy that, almost incredibly given the cast, literally has not one funny moment in it. Apparently, not even the combined talents of Jason Batemen, T.J. Miller, Jennifer Aniston, Olivia Munn, Kate McKinnon and Rob Corrdry are sufficient to save this one.
A Seth Rogen movie without Seth Rogen, this is a shock comedy that’s not particularly shocking, but the comedic timing is even worse. The jokes that don’t land litter the cinematic landscape like empty beer bottles the morning after a frat party, and smell almost as good.
T. J. Miller and Jennifer Aniston: feuding, but unfunny, siblings
The always endearing T.J. Miller plays Clay, the well-meaning, but ineffectual trust fund baby of the founder of Zenotek, a man who took six years to get a degree in Canadian Television, a character somewhere between any number of Seth Rogen roles and Zach Galifianakis in The Hangover movies. Perhaps understandably, his sister Carol (Jennifer Aniston), a Harvard Business graduate, bears him some resentment. Buying Miller and Aniston as feuding siblings is a stretch – not only is there no hint of a family resemblance – but Aniston, if not quite old enough to be Miller’s mother, is in the age range to be his sister only if they were both sired by Mick Jagger in different decades.
Aniston is the story’s Scrooge figure – a humorless, vindictive, bitchy executive who talks bottom line but is more interested in showing up her brother. That by itself demonstrates the Office Christmas Party‘s haphazard approach to the material. Scrooge was the main character, not a stock villain straight from Central Casting. When Carol cancels the holiday party, Clay throws one anyway, bigger and rowdier even than originally intended, hoping to use it to impress potential big client Courtney B. Vance – yes, the same Courtney B. Vance who just won an Emmy for playing Johnny Cochran in American Crime Story and a Tony in 2013 for Nora Ephron’s Lucky Guy.
There is much emphasis on the people who work in the Chicago Zenotek office. Other than bouncing the point of view around too much, it’s a futile attempt at character-driven comedy. Nobody in the audience is going to give a damn what Zenotek Corporation does or what its employees do. This is particularly ironic given the climax of Office Christmas Party involves Olivia Munn’s character creating what is arguably the single biggest computer advance of the century. And oddly, that plot twist has nothing, repeat nothing, to do with the 105 minutes that have gone before.
That running time, by the way, is far too long for this threadbare material.
Improvised but unfunny scenes
The nominal screenplay’s approach to structure is not just loose, it’s virtually random. Zenotek’s family of employees, played by an impressive array of familiar faces, pop in and out like targets in a videogame: Kate McKinnon (NBC’s Saturday Night Live, Ghostbusters), Rob Corddry (Hot Tub Time Machine, Cedar Rapids, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, The Way Way Back) Karan Soni (Deadpool, Ghostbusters).
The screenplay, credited to Laura Solon and Justin Malen, but reportedly worked on, if you can believe it, by six different writers, is clearly no more than a loose framework for a production that suffers all too clearly from the evils of improvisation. Actors always think their improvised scenes are hysterical, but it’s the audience who has to suffer for it. The end credits here are punctuated with outtakes of obviously improvised material from recognizable scenes from the movie, and though unfunny, aren’t any worse than what’s in Office Christmas Party. How directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck (Blades of Glory, The Switch) decided what to use and what to cut is a mystery.
Shock comedy not that shocking
Shock comedies can shock all they want as long as they’re funny, a rule consistently forgotten here. Another rule of shock comedies is that they should be shocking. There is nothing, repeat nothing, even attempted in Office Christmas Party that hasn’t been done before. We know that cocaine’s going into the snow gun the first time we see the plastic bags of white powder that go in it, and by the time Courtney B. Vance gets a snotful, we’ve been waiting far too long. And besides, they did that with a toddler in A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas back in 2011. Interestingly, Gordon and Speck showed no such undue restraint in their 2010 outing, The Switch, which also starred Jason Bateman and was much funnier.
As the recently divorced CTO of the company, Bateman is the voice of reason in a company that seems to specialize in hiring lunatics. That he and Zenotek lead engineer Tracey (Olivia Munn) are attracted to each other is obvious, frankly too much so to make it a major plot, so that’s exactly what the filmmakers inexplicably chose to do, trying to fashion a holiday rom/com out of R-rated shock material. This mistake is compounded by trying to make Aniston’s Carol more likable as the movie lurches awkwardly toward its out-of-place conclusion. It is an established rule of shock comedies that you should never apologize for a main character’s bad behavior.
There can be no redemption of Scrooge here. Once we’ve seen Carol traumatize a young child in an airport lounge by convincing her that Santa will not only take her off the nice list but repossess her treasured doll as well (the kid did eat her Cinnabuns, after all), we’ve established that she isn’t a nice person and if she isn’t funny (which through no fault of Aniston’s, she isn’t), suddenly making her nicer won’t do it.
The party alone should have provided enough material for sight gags, raunch, and debauchery to keep a movie like this moving, and yet oddly it doesn’t. As in so many Seth Rogen movies, you have to find humor solely in watching people behave badly while drinking too much and taking drugs. Other than some stock pratfalls and a bizarre, almost disturbingly unfunny dance number involving Jason Bateman and Olivia Munn dressed as snowmen, little happens until the property damage ratchets up.
The filmmakers presumably knew they were going for an R rating, yet seem puritanically inhibited when it comes to the sex gags and nudity which would have been de rigeur in a movie like this only a few years ago. This is particularly incongruous considering a subplot involving Karan Soni hiring a paid escort (Abbey Lee) to masquerade as the non-existent hot girlfriend he’s been bragging to his coworkers about. Her pimp, played by 22 Jump Street’s Jillian Bell, actually comes close to getting laughs a couple of times.
There’s a reason they tell lifesaving students not to jump in after a drowning victim, but to start by trying to throw them a line: they’ll pull you down with them. McKinnon tries valiantly to save the sinking ship, but ultimately is inevitably pulled down with it, as surely as the band on the Titanic.
Technically, Office Christmas Party is a handsome product, actually well-edited. The production was largely shot in Georgia for tax credit purposes, but integrates glorified second unit footage of Chicago slickly enough to convince non-credits readers that the movie was actually made there. The party mayhem is well-executed, and the Zenotek building sustains enough property damage during the festivities to conjure memories of Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard, though that movie actually had more jokes.
Office Christmas Party is a prime example of the pitfalls of throwing Hollywood resources at an under-developed screenplay, hoping the actors will save your ass on the set. You wouldn’t let the inmates in the asylum administer shock treatments, although that might actually be more fun than this under-cooked holiday turkey.
What do you think? Should the stoner Christmas comedy just be consigned to the cutout bin, or is there hope to top Harold & Kumar?
Office Christmas Party is already in theatrical release in the U.S. and the U.K.
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