Office holiday parties are inherently odd. Employees are forced into camaraderie and socialization, but letting loose while maintaining your professionalism presents a bit of a conundrum. If you’re too inhibited, you’re a wet blanket. Too carefree? You won’t be able to look your colleagues in the eye until at least St. Patrick’s Day. It’s a paradox of awkwardness rife with cinematic possibilities. Office Christmas Party takes full advantage of those opportunities, and then some.
The premise for Office Christmas Party is pretty simple: Carol (Jennifer Aniston) is the effective, efficient, cold-hearted interim CEO of her late father’s tech company. She wants to lay off a bunch of the staff at the branch of the company run by her caring, laid-back brother, Clay (T.J. Miller). His branch is doing pretty well, but we get the impression that it’s primarily because of the work and management of Chief Technology Officer Josh (Jason Bateman). Regardless, the branch’s modest success and the arguments that layoffs will hurt real people are not enough to sway Carol, so Clay, Josh, and lead systems engineer Tracey (Olivia Munn) make a deal that if they can land the big client (Courtney B. Vance), the branch will be spared. They realize that their only hope of landing that client is to throw a massive, amazing office Christmas party.
Office Christmas Party seems to want to be an Office Space/Bad Santa hybrid. There’s raunchy humor, a mostly superfluous holiday setting, and plenty of office tropes, such disclaimers about hot coffee, office romance, and a by-the book-HR director (Kate McKinnon). But despite some great jokes, Office Christmas Party may have a hard time becoming a holiday classic because the movie has 2016 stamped all over it. The jokes involving Uber drivers and a Santa who can collect for charity with a Square credit card reader might start to feel outdated within the next few years. A reference to the deaths of David Bowie and Prince will almost certainly seem odd to future audiences. And although I’d love to believe the economy will forever stay as robust as it’s been in 2016, the idea of massive cuts at a branch that’s growing at a rate of 6.5 percent instead of 7 percent per quarter may someday in the not too distant future seem inconceivable.
Sitting solidly in 2016 isn’t all bad, though. The female characters in this movie have depth that would have been uncommon even 5 or 10 years ago. No one even makes a dumb joke over the fact that Tracey (a woman) is the top technological engineer at the branch. Although Jennifer Aniston’s Carol is an asshole, she’s an asshole because she’s an asshole, not because she’s a woman. You could have dropped Jon Hamm into that role and barely changed the script.
But you shouldn’t, since Aniston is great in another role highlighting her comedic skill. In fact, the whole cast is great and totally game no matter how ridiculous things get. Bateman and Miller balance each other out, playing characters who are complementary but not as completely opposite as they initially seem. McKinnon is good throughout, but she especially shines in the last third of the film. Even the more minor players – Jillian Bell (22 Jump Street) as a pimp, Fortune Feimster as an Uber driver – have an outsized positive impact on the movie.
With all of that talent and buy-in from the cast, it’s easy to see why directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck (Blades of Glory, The Switch) and their editors want to cram as much as possible into this movie. But, much like all of us when dealing with office parties, they should have let their better angels outweigh their baser instincts. Office Christmas Party is solidly 15-20 minutes too long. That seems impossible given how many different subplots and conflicts are involved, but particularly in the party scenes in the middle third, the film should have been much tighter. You might think seeing the titular party’s descent into debauchery is a going to be fun, but watching other people get drunk, naked, and stupid is actually kinda boring. Those are not really experiences one can live vicariously through actors, so the audience just ends up like a designated driver watching from the periphery.
Office Christmas Party is perfectly fun, if a bit slow. It won’t change your life, but it will probably entertain you and might also serve as a helpful reminder to keep your own holiday party behavior under control this season. Case in point: I saw Office Christmas Party and wrote this review of it fewer than 24 hours before attending my own office holiday party. As a result, I will almost certainly avoid any cocaine present at this evening’s festivities. Movies really do change lives.