Hollywood once knew how to make sweet, family-friendly Christmas comedies, but that’s a skill that has apparently been lost in the age of Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen. The closest thing we’ve gotten to the old model this year is the anemic “Almost Christmas,” and its attempt at sentimental slapstick was almost immediately erased by the vile “Bad Santa 2.” Now we have “Christmas Office Party,” which aims to be a holiday-themed clone of “The Hangover” but fails even to meet that low standard. Trying to be wild and crazy, it’s mild and lazy instead.
Set in Chicago—the attractive exteriors of the Loop are one of the picture’s only virtues—the plot centers on the Midwest branch of the Zenotek Data Storage Corporation, which apparently is located just beside the city’s Picasso sculpture, which appears repeatedly in establishing shots. The office is presided over by goofy man-child Clay Vanstone (T.J. Miller), whose sister Carol (Jennifer Aniston), the severe CEO of the firm who has it in for her brother (apparently because, in true Smothers Brothers form, their late father liked him best), arrives threatening to close the place down if profits don’t spike immediately. She also orders Clay to cancel the holiday mixer planned for that evening by super-sensitive HR head Mary (Kate McKinnon).
Also caught up in the business turmoil are Josh Parker (Jason Bateman), the branch’s just-divorced, nice guy technical officer, and his chief computer wiz Tracey Hughes (Olivia Munn), who are obviously destined to get together, as well as an array of colorful supporting character like perpetually angry customer service rep Jeremy (Rob Corddry) and IT supervisor Nate (Karan Soni), a guy so desperate for a date that he hires gorgeous escort Savannah (Abbey Lee), whose pimp Trina (Jillian Bell) is a gun-toting dervish. And that only scratches the surface of the workforce and hangers-on, which also includes Clay’s sweet secretary Allison (Vanessa Bayer), dim-witted new hire Fred (Randall Park) and sassy security guard Carla (Da’Vine Joy Randolph).
The plot kicks in when Clay decides to defy his sister and throw a big company bash to convince Walter (Courtney B. Vance), a visiting executive with a lucrative contract to dispense, that Zenotek is the firm he should choose to give his business to. After wafting along rather sedately for an hour or so, the movie lurches into frenetic overdrive when Walter gets a snootful of cocaine (being sold by Savannah) that’s been accidentally tossed into a fake-snow-making machine and goes berserk, sending the whole group (and outsiders who hear about the bash) into an orgy of dancing and inappropriate behavior—which includes, just to show you how uninspired the script is, folks sitting with bare bottoms on copying machines to make naughty photos of their derrieres. (Do modern tech companies still house an array of old-fashioned copiers?) Josh and Tracey also get locked out on the snowy roof of the building at one point—now there’s a scene you’ve never encountered before.
Amid the chaos Carol returns, after having been snowed in at the airport (though for Chicago, the weather seems rather benign) and showing her nastiness both in an encounter with a little girl and a first-time Uber driver (Fortune Feimster), just as the party reaches its unfunny conclusion and the phalanx of writers (three credited with the thinking up the “story” and three more with the actual writing of it) toss in a car chase down Clark Street toward a bridge that’s being raised over the river. The real climax occurs, though, when Zenotek is saved not by poor Walter, but by an abrupt discovery having to do with a revolutionary form of Internet connectivity. That might be appropriate, since most people will probably wind up watching this lump of cinematic coal on their computers or smart phones, but it doesn’t make for much Christmas uplift. The only person, after all, who’s “redeemed” by the experience is Carol—the Scrooge or Grinch who finally learns a lesson in mellowing, mostly brought about, however, by imagining the dollar signs the invention will mean for the company—a truly inspiring holiday message.
The cast do what they can with this unpromising material, but only a few of the supporting players—Bell, Soni, Feimster—make much of a mark. The lead performers—Bateman, Aniston, Munn—deliver surprisingly flat turns (Bateman’s laid-back throwaway lines should have been), while McKinnon, Corddry and Park suffer especially badly. You have to sympathize most with Vance, however, who tries desperately hard to be funny, only to prove that comedy is really not his métier.
The mediocrity of “Office Christmas Party” rests largely with the screenplay, but the slack direction by Josh Gordon and Will Speck does the picture no favors. Nor does the cinematography by Jeff Cutter, which is fine in the exteriors (perhaps done by a second unit) but pedestrian in the interiors (shot in Atlanta), or the editing by Jeff Groth and Evan Henke, which fails to give scenes the punch they need, even in the car-chase finale. In this case weakness of execution exacerbates poverty of invention.
But we needn’t worry: “Office Christmas Party” will quickly go the way of “Almost Christmas,” “Bad Santa 2” and the growing list of crummy holiday movies produced of late, and disappear after a week or so, only to turn up as a sad perennial on cable TV. (We have another contender coming up momentarily—“Why Him?”) This one is particularly galling, though, since one can imagine the premise having been much more adroitly handled, taking its lead from “Office Space” or even the earlier seasons of “The Office.”
Well, maybe next year.