Office parties are always risky.
Add in the holiday factor and the gathering could likely become a volatile chemistry experiment laced with pettiness, jealousy, lust, debauchery or rage.
That’s the impetus behind “Office Christmas Party,” an amusing romp fueled by lively performances that largely delivers on the promise of a company shindig spiraling out of control. But like most workplace parties, the film functions better when expectations aren’t too high.
Jason Bateman stars as Josh, a CTO of a tech company that is chugging along despite the inefficiency of Clay (T.J. Miller), its well-meaning but hard-partying boss. When Clay’s domineering CEO sister, Carol (Jennifer Aniston), threatens to close the Chicago branch unless they cut 40 percent of the staff, the supervisors concoct a plan to save everyone’s jobs.
“Shoot for the moon. You’ll land on the sun,” Clay says.
Actually, the scheme is to woo a game-changing client (Courtney B. Vance). They’ll show him the company’s unified and jovial spirit by throwing the most epic office Christmas bash ever … in spite of Carol’s explicit instructions banning such wasteful merriments this season.
Other employees have their own personal stakes in the event.
Lead engineer Tracey (Olivia Munn) aims to steer the team — especially the more conservative Josh — toward adopting her radical ideas for hoisting the company’s market value.
Single mom Allison (Vanessa Bayer) hopes to find a single guy who isn’t a jerkwad like her ex-husband.
Nate (Karan Soni) needs to convince his skeptical co-workers he truly has that steady girlfriend he’s always bragging about.
And HR director Mary (Kate McKinnon) just wants to ensure people stay out of trouble. This is why the flatulent stickler wears a “multi-denominational holiday sweater” that incorporates all the major religions, so as not to offend anyone.
“Office Christmas Party” was inspired by an unremarkable “Saturday Night Live” skit of the same name and features current cast members Bayer and McKinnon. No surprise the movie sometimes feels like a collision of disconnected late-night sketches. These work on their own terms, for the most part, until the third act, when the story steps away from the office. Fight scenes, car chases and casual indifference from the viewer ensue.
Fortunately, the cast bails out the screenplay (credited to six writers). As he confirmed already in 2016 with “Central Intelligence” and “Zootopia,” Bateman dramatically improves any picture. Nobody plays a smarmy Everyman like he can.
Miller, whose character is best described when told, “Your mind’s like a drunk baby,” showcases his shaggy, disjointed energy. He makes a great foil for the control freak sister portrayed hilariously and aggressively by Aniston — as she did in the “Horrible Bosses” movies.
Less effective is McKinnon. As in the recent “Ghostbusters” remake, the reliable TV comedian comes across as too calculatingly wacky for the big screen. She’s playing to the camera while her co-stars are simply playing their roles. As the mid-credits outtakes reveal, the grinning McKinnon seems given free range to make up any dialogue she wants. But her oddball, free-form monologues grind the actual story to a standstill.
“Office Christmas Party” proves that a comedy often works better when not everyone’s trying so hard to be funny.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
‘Office Christmas Party’
Rated R. Time: 1:45.
That was some party
Jennifer Aniston didn’t have to try hard to look stunned when her CEO character steps into a raucous office Christmas party, packed with 350 acting extras.
“Yeah, that was kind of intense,” she told Entertainment Weekly. “It’s a lot, walking into a lot of extras. And they’re naked. And they’re walking toward you in the scene, and they’re directed to sort of, oops, lunge toward you, onto you. Yeah, it’s overwhelming.”
Co-star Olivia Munn said she grew desensitized to the madness. One naked actor called over to her. “I go, ‘Yeah,’ and he was like, ‘What was it like working on “The Daily Show”? Because I just really love Jon Stewart. What’s he really like?’ And I’m like, ‘Um …’ ”
Sharon Hoffmann, firstname.lastname@example.org