Like most workplace holiday parties, “Office Christmas Party” reeks of desperation and an incessant need to have fun at every turn. Sure, there are some generally reliable players (T.J. Miller, Jason Bateman, Kate McKinnon), which keeps things from getting deathly dull, but the newest film from directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck (“Blades of Glory”) is mostly uninspired and bland. Like a wallflower stuck holding your coat in the back corner, you’re left waiting, but you receive very little.
Josh Parker’s (Bateman) holiday season isn’t going so well. The recently divorced CTO for tech company Zenotek’s failing Chicago branch, run by the good-natured, hard-partying but professionally-immature Clay Vanstone (Miller), his prospects are looking dim. The company’s profit margins continue to decrease by the year, and it doesn’t help that Zenotek’s CEO Carol Vanstone (Jennifer Aniston), Clay’s stern, more levelheaded sister, is threatening to close the Chicago branch for good unless they can close the gap in the next two days. It’s a tall order, but Clay, Josh and Tracey (Olivia Munn), Josh’s lead programmer, believe they have an ace in their pocket with Walter (Courtney B. Vance), a high-end client that could save Zenotek with a lucrative contract agreement. How do they plan to woo Walter in such a short window of time? By inviting him to their annual office Christmas party, of course, which needs to be bigger, badder and more #epic than ever to convince the old party-hardy Walter that they’re better than their stuffy competitors. But they need to do it under Carol’s nose, as she’s put a strict kibosh on their annual party plans. But that’s only the beginning of their problems.
Comedy ringers including Vanessa Bayer, Rob Corddry, Randall Park, Matt Walsh, Jillian Bell and the aforementioned McKinnon round out the supporting cast, and they all do what they can to liven up the proceedings. None of them are slacking, but like the rest of the cast, none of them seem have a firm grasp of what they’re trying to do here. “Office Christmas Party” is too lighthearted to fully own up to its raunchy intentions, yet it’s too foul-mouthed and debauched to earn any sympathy votes. The talented cast is left grasping for straws, hoping they can come up with enough amusing asides and keenly observed jokes to make their way through the evening. Some fare better than others. Corddry, Bayer, Munn and Aniston leave little impression, but McKinnon, Bell, Miller and Bateman provide a couple mild chuckles periodically. The biggest highlight, surprisingly comes from Vance —especially as the dramatic actor looks relieved to dip his toes into comedy territory after his intensive, demanding but frequently excellent Emmy-winning work as Johnnie Cochran on FX’s sensational “The People vs. OJ Simpson.” If little else, Gordon and Speck prove Vance’s comedy chops are nearly just as strong as his dramatic ones.
It’s often surprising how tame sex, nudity, profanity, violence and excessive drug use can seem in “Office Christmas Party.” Has this type of behavior become normalized on the big screen, or is it merely that these lewd acts are the go-to basics when seeking to “shock” audiences? In any case, Speck and Gordon’s film comfortably relies on the same bathroom humor, sex talk, party antics and slow-motion visual gags over and over again. Taking a few too many tricks from Todd Phillips and Judd Apatow without adding anything new, “Office Christmas Party” isn’t regressive as much as it is mild in ambition. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it seems like a counter-intuitive approach for an R-rated comedy that wants to be as loud, brash and crude in its content as this film. However, the production values are noticeably decent here, and the sleek cinematography from Jeff Cutter (“10 Cloverfield Lane”) gives the film more polish than most studio comedies these days. But this does little to make an otherwise-undefined movie hold any heft.
With a screenplay by Laura Solon (“Hot in Cleveland”), first-time screenwriter Justin Malen and Dan Mazer (“Dirty Grandpa”), and with a story partially credited to Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (the original “The Hangover,” “Bad Moms”), the film’s undefined tone may be a result of too many cooks in the kitchen. “Office Christmas Party” wants to make a party to remember (or not remember, for that matter…), but it’s ultimately unmemorable to the point of pure tedium. Unlike last year’s surprisingly engaging, massively heartfelt “The Night Before,” “Office Christmas Party” brings nothing worth celebrating under your tree this year, much like last month’s similarly disappointing “Bad Santa 2.” [C]