Film Review: Office Christmas Party (USA, 2016) delivers chaos but no comedy

Subplots run amok in Office Christmas Party, an overwraught holiday comedy that marks a return to the big screen for directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck, who are best known for the Will Ferrell and Jon Heder mishap Blades of Glory. Though unlike the 2007 sports comedy, the team’s latest feature doesn’t have the thick frame of oddly-aimed satire to anchor it, instead relying on an overcrowded cast of hit-or-miss comedians who are somehow roped into a script full of bad running jokes and stale archetypes.

Let’s be real: Christmas comedies are rarely clever, valuing goofy shtick to spread a little joy for the holidays. Though even with good intentions considered, Office Christmas Party just falls flat scene after scene, with poor character sketches drawn from superior films, all united under the failing Chicago branch of a tech company called Zenotek Data Storage Systems.

Kate McKinnon draws the shortest stick playing a “kill joy” HR manager named Mary, who insists the office Christmas party be reformed as a “non-denominational holiday mixer” and sports an all-inclusive Christmas sweater to make her point. Her rigidity is supposed to make it all the more funny when she passes wind – an uneven running joke reserved for both the first half and last half of the film – in an early office meeting. Though she is by no means alone in the wasted talent category, joined by Silicon Valley MVP T.J Miller who plays a man-baby boss, Jennifer Aniston as his fire-happy CEO of a sister who inherited the company after their father passed, Jason Bateman a recently divorced chief technical officer, and Olivia Munn as Zenotek’s big-thinking coding expert. The latter two share about as much on-screen chemistry as Bateman and Aniston usually do (not much), but that doesn’t stop badly drawn romantic tension from making its obligatory push.

Miller’s character, Clay, is the film’s great big hope as he is pinned as the irresponsible party animal with a big heart but small mind, squaring against Aniston’s Carol Vanstone who wants to cancel Christmas (that is, the Christmas party). Not only that, the fun-proof sister wants to lay off almost half the staff and shut her brother’s underperforming branch down, that is unless they can land a multi-million dollar contract from Walter Davis (Courtney B. Vance) in the ridiculously short amount of time of 48 hours (because of course). Through some mixture of desperation and idiocy, this requires Clay to invite Davis to Zenotek’s big Christmas blowout, held in secrecy from Carol, in order to show him that this is a company worth working with. Queue contrived party that spirals out of control after a bag of cocaine is accidentally used in the snow machine; if anything, the chaotic scenes of destruction speak well for the producers.

Lifeless side characters are given their own arcs to run with, like archetypal loser Nate (Karan Soni), the token dork who unsuccessfully tries to convince his boisterous colleagues that he has a girlfriend. It’s a lie that leads him to hire an escort (Abbey Lee) for the party (the source of that aforementioned cocaine) and unwittingly introduce the film’s only genuinely funny character, Jillian Bell’s affable-yet-menacing pimp Trina. While one of the more entertaining scenarios – certainly more watchable than Randall Park’s immediately abandoned “mommy fetish” arc – it too runs into a wall when the script realises Bell’s talents are better used as a late-coming villain.

One good decision doesn’t make an entire film though, and Bell’s character struggles to atone for the pile of mishaps that are scattered throughout. The script even manages to dull Fortune Feimster’s otherwise welcome guest spot as an on-the-edge Uber driver, mistaking the way she intonates “bitches” as some kind of effective running joke that just has to be used several times in the hopes that it will become a memorable meme (it won’t).

The overdone dichotomy between Clay and Carol eventually anchors the film in a somewhat endearing Christmas cheer but it’s more a case of “too little too late” by the time the bloopers pop up, and you’re left wondering why you didn’t give up sooner.

Review Score: ONE STAR (OUT OF FIVE)

Run time: 105 minutes

Office Christmas Party is out in Australian cinemas now.