For as long as there have been ensemble comedies, there have been wasted opportunities and over-talented casts. The litany of movies with fantastic groups of actors wasted on unoriginal scripts is littered with titles like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, 200 Cigarettes, and Valentine’s Day.
When the script or direction fails on an ensemble comedy, more than a fair share of the workload falls onto the cast. Some movies, like This is the End or Hail, Caesar!, manage to stay just above water because of the actors alone, but a brilliant cast can only do so much — which is exactly Office Christmas Party‘s problem.
Jason Bateman, T.J. Miller, Olivia Munn, Courtney B. Vance, Kate McKinnon, Jennifer Aniston, Vanessa Bayer, Randall Park, Karan Soni, Rob Corddry, Sam Richardson, and Jillian Bell form the holiday comedy’s cast and deserve credit not just for doing more than their share to keep the party going but for sharing the spotlight like a true comedy team. It really makes you wish the writing were better.
Clay Vanstone (Miller) is the Chicago branch manager for tech company Zenotek, struggling to keep up morale in the wake of another branch’s recent closure. His hopes are hung on the office’s annual Christmas bash, until his sister — and Zenotek’s interim CEO — Carol (Aniston) cancels it.
With the help of exec Josh (Bateman) and tech wizard Tracey (Munn), Clay buys a stay of execution for his branch with the promise of being able to land a potential client with deep pockets, Walter (Vance). The pitch goes well, but Walter remains on the fence because of concerns Zenotek doesn’t care about people. When Clay invites Walter to their Christmas party to see for himself how they treat their employees, the party is back on — and bigger than ever.
The debauchery of the party itself makes up the bulk of the movie, which amounts to nothing more than showing funny adults doing awful or ridiculous things — but everyone involved is so game for anything, the lack of any real plot until the final act doesn’t even hurt things so much as just negate any chance of Office Christmas Party being more than not bad.
What does most of the damage are the plot turns the movie takes in its last third, when the structural need for an ending begets a climax that doesn’t feel organic — nor is really that funny, which the rest of the movie mostly remains until that point.
Bateman, Miller, Munn, Aniston, and the whole cast do excellent work together. Miller, especially, has a blast with Clay, a fun-loving guy who wants nothing more than for everyone to have as good a party as possible. After hysterically stealing scenes in everything from Yogi Bear to Deadpool, he tackles a starring role with the best amount of gusto.
Bateman is good as Josh, although he’s playing the same role he’s been playing in almost everything since Arrested Development, which is comforting but also somewhat disappointing, especially after his refreshingly caustic turn in Bad Words. Munn does a great job with the cliché role of Bateman’s unrealistically smart-sexy-geeky-cute-single love interest, bringing a personality to the role that isn’t there in the writing.
Aniston doesn’t quite fit in with the comedic tone of many of the cast, but is well aided by her history with Bateman in The Break-Up, The Switch, and both Horrible Bosses movies.
In fairness, though, Aniston’s not the only one. McKinnon doesn’t find the same frequency as anyone else, either, overplaying her character like a one-note SNL joke. Nor do Randall Park or Vanessa Bayer find the right frequency, although they at least are in sync together. Courtney B. Vance isn’t, though. And I can’t even tell whether Karan Soni understood he wasn’t actually in a National Lampoon movie.
Everyone in Office Christmas Party is, individually, a hilarious and strong performer. Together, though, they all seem to be playing different music. You can have a collection of incredibly talented musicians performing together, but if they aren’t united and guided by a strong conductor, it’s just going to sound like a mess.
The directing team of Will Speck and Josh Gordon, who made the better-than-expected Blades of Glory and the excellent The Switch, are good enough at keeping things going well when they’re already running smoothly, but aren’t capable enough to course-correct if something goes wrong. With such a strong cast of comics from such diverse comedic backgrounds, that’s exactly what Office Christmas Party needed, and the lack of it nearly runs the movie aground.
They may not always work in harmony, but the ensemble of comedians can’t help but mine comedy gold from much of the movie’s setup — to say nothing of the few scenes where everyone’s sensibilities all do line up, to riotous effect. But without a foundation to return to during slow moments or strong voices to direct the picture, Office Christmas Party amounts to nothing more than fleeting fun that can’t last a full movie. It’s like a party that peters out by 8:00.