'Office Christmas Party'
Rated R: 105 minutes
One and a half stars out of four
Movie-wise, the office Christmas party is the great dismantler of white-collar worker-bee life. Set out the booze, turn down the lights, and suddenly the cubicle walls around staid office life are blown away by heartbreak ("The Apartment") or Hans Gruber ("Die Hard").
The only things to burst forth when the egg nog starts flowing in "Office Christmas Party," though, are slow-motion party montages that exist for nothing but the film's trailers, and further reflections on the sad state of the studio comedy.
Directors Will Speck and Josh Gordon ("Blades of Glory," ''The Switch") have assembled many key ingredients to a successful Christmas shindig, or as it's called in the film, a "non-denominational holiday mixer." A holiday sweater-clad Kate McKinnon (who plays a nervous human resources administrator), alone, should be enough to cater any party. But there's also T.J. Miller, Courtney B. Vance, Vanessa Bayer, Randall Park and two "Veep" players, Matt Walsh and Sam Richardson. Who wouldn't want to carol with such a crew?
But "Office Christmas Party" and its filmmakers have little feel for how to utilize its funny cast, or for what it wants to unleash. Speck and Gordon, who handsomely set their film in a Chicago high-rise, have a movie with all the trimmings, but none of the jokes.
The cast is also titled toward the wrong people. It stars Jason Bateman as an executive at Zenotek, a computer company that is run by its budget-cutting CEO, Carol Vanstone (Jennifer Aniston). The Bateman-Aniston combo has been trotted out so often in mediocre comedies (including "The Switch") that it has lost whatever appeal is once had.
The fresh blood in "Office Christmas Party," though, is Miller, the "Silicon Valley" star. His HBO show is a far more pointed and smarter parody of internet company culture. But in his biggest big-screen role yet, he's lost little of his swagger. Here, he's the head of Zenotek's Chicago branch, a position inherited from his late father. The bigger job went to his sister, Carol, whom he resents for her more corporate management.
Given two days to turn the branch's profits around before his sister drastically cuts the staff, he desperately organizes an extravagant holiday party to court a lucrative client (Vance). The early scenes, pre-romp, are the film's best. Since television has largely given up the workplace sitcom, there's space for a movie to pick up the slack.
But "Office Christmas Party," cobbled together by six writers, doesn't have the confidence to build its story through the interplay of its employees, and it soon tires of office politics. As things ramp up, a prostitute (Abbey Lee) and a pimp (Jillian Bell) are brought in, as is a far-fetched plot involving Olivia Munn's inventor. The film seems to be hanging together purely to accommodate enough scenes of "Project X"-style mayhem as the party careens out of control, complete with already stale Uber and 3-D printer gags. Even when today's comedies go crazy, there's not an ounce of danger.
It's just nearly enough to make a movie, despite the considerable spiritedness of Miller, an arched-eyebrow force of nature. The best that can be said for "Office Christmas Party" is that at least it doesn't underuse him.