For those seeking the holiday film that dials down the action and isn’t trying to make you cry, Office Christmas Party delivers on what you’d expect in a good way. It may not go down as a great comedy or even a great Christmas comedy, but it has a lot of funny people being consistently funny. It’s the kind of movie that sets up its premise in the title and makes you wonder if that sort of bluntness will transfer into something worthwhile. Fortunately, everyone seemed game to make that happen. It only helps that the film plays fairly by its own rules and buries a level of sentiment in a film set during a time that benefits from holiday cheer.
Beyond the obvious idea that this film concerns a bunch of talented comic actors throwing a wild Christmas party in their office, the plot is still fairly straightforward. T.J. Miller plays Clay Vanstone, the wild branch manager of an office in jeopardy. Despite the best efforts from him and his CFO (Jason Bateman), Clay’s CEO sister Carol (Jennifer Aniston) is looking to close the branch. This can all change if the office can sign on a potential client represented by Courtney B. Vance. The solution is to throw a giant office Christmas party, which will both impress the client and allow the office workers to get their spirits higher than ever. Chaos ensues and reindeer are involved.
The film stacks its cast with many other funny people you’ll recognize from various movies and TV shows, including Kate McKinnon, Olivia Munn, Rob Corddry, Jillian Bell, Vanessa Bayer, Randall Park, Sam Richardson, Karan Soni and Matt Walsh. Each has their moment to shine and some get real development as characters. It’s not enough to call Office Christmas Party some kind of character-driven revelation that compares to the likes of other R-rated comedies such as Role Models, for example, but the film manages to hold onto a level of sympathy and understanding, rather than reveling in meanness.
Setting the film during the holiday season certainly helps with this. Directors Will Speck and Josh Gordon (Blades of Glory, The Switch) and the team of writers involved do not forget their concept in favor of making the party needlessly frenzied. It is what helps Miller’s character never seem annoying, as he is doing everything he can to ensure that his employees have a good Christmas by ideally getting them their bonuses and keeping their jobs. Sure, things go over the top, as this is in the roots of the film, but the motivations are clear and the reasoning is sound. It works in the way the best “giant party” movies do, because we see some well-meaning individuals as the brains of the operation, for better or worse.
There are also the many efforts by this cast to keep the film from being boring. Yes, there are a good number of moments that rely solely on improvisation. Other bits have the movie flying on autopilot. There are even some telegraphed moments that lead to unsurprising (but somewhat inspired) payoffs. Still, you have a variety of comedic talent here and they all deliver in a way where even if you don’t like some, others can maybe elicit a bigger smile.
It would be hard to name an MVP, as comedy is so subjective, but credit where it is do, this cast has great chemistry together. Bateman probably gets my vote, as he continues to nail the mix of sarcasm and empathy that has sadly made him and often underrated dramatic presence, even in comedy. SNL members McKinnon and Bayer are fun in their respective parks, as is Bell who makes a potentially awful subplot in the film a lot more watchable. There’s also the delight of seeing dramatic vet Vance go against type here, as he shows a good amount of chemistry with Miller. I can even credit Aniston for being amusing enough. She enters the film to suck the fun out of the room (much like real life), but plays up an unlikable persona so hard that it benefits her in various moments, including a great airport scene. And or course Corddry is a riot, but that generally goes without saying.
Again, Office Christmas Party isn’t breaking any new ground, but there is a sense of fun to be had with it. Last year’s Sisters with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler had a similar effect. Both have stories that do little to impress, but make up for it with genuine hilarity and enough supporting performers to make for a worthwhile comedic distraction.