What makes us laugh is an incredibly complex and subjective thing. Sometimes, I can’t explain why something struck me as funny; it just did on a primal and instinctive level. I know this makes me a bit of a weirdo, but there are comedies that I enjoy that I’ve never re-watched, because I fear I won’t think they’re funny on repeat viewings. I remember distinctly thinking the second Austin Powers movie was one of the funniest films I’d ever seen and then sat mystified through a second viewing of it where none of the jokes worked for me at all. How had I once thought any of this was funny? I just stared at it in disbelief.
And then there are the problems that come specifically from feature film comedy, a different sort of animal than a TV sitcom. A movie doesn’t always have to be The Maltese Falcon, but even the most unambitious films need a story that can sustain your interest for 85 minutes. I think we’re in a time where TV comedy is a lot better than film comedy for that reason. Not to put too fine of a point on it, but with any comedy, your mileage may vary.
That brings me to the new ensemble comedy, Office Christmas Party. It’s the latest in a series of rowdy, R-rated comedies that have cropped up in the wake of The Hangover’s massive success a few years ago.
Jason Bateman plays Josh, the recently divorced Chief Technical Officer at the Chicago office of a company called Zenotek. His boss is Clay (TJ Miller), the oafish son of the company’s late founder. Clay is the sort of ne’er do well that somehow always lands on his feet. His sister Carol (Jennifer Aniston) is now the acting Zenotek CEO following their father’s death. Carol shows up furious that quarterly growth is only 6.5% and demands that her brother immediately lay off 40% of his staff. She also cancels the “nondenominational holiday mixer” the company was going to have later that night. Clay strikes a deal with Carol that if he can win the business of high profile client Walter Davis (Courtney B. Vance), she will allow him to keep his staff intact. Clay decides the best way to get Walter’s business is to invite him to the biggest company Christmas party the world has ever seen.
There are some fun ideas here. The movie opens with some fun stuff about how corporate risk management has given us holiday parties that begin at 4:00 in the afternoon and don’t serve alcohol to avoid and liability. (The first shot in the film is of a table of drinks labeled “non-alcoholic mimosas.”) The film also dares to touch base with the quarterly profits obsession that causes corporations to make bad short-term decisions to appease the shareholders.
Corporate risk aversion takes human form in Mary (Kate McKinnon), the head of Human Resources. From her first appearance in which she’s wearing a ridiculous inclusive holiday sweater, McKinnon steals the movie. She’s an even weirder version of Toby Flenderson from The Office.
Of course, the office party gets out of hand quickly, thanks in part to some cocaine that makes its way into a snow blower. I think it’s going to depend on your individual taste how funny you think the party is. I appreciated that directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck keep the debauchery at arm's length. This is a movie that could easily wallow in its own gross-out capacity but doesn’t. I was kind of delighted that nobody threw up or pooped on anybody else. For myself, the party gets less interesting the more over the top and surreal it gets. I just don’t think people could toss a vending machine out of a high-rise office building in downtown Chicago without the police paying them a visit. By the time a man is dressed as Jesus riding a horse through the office, the film wisely moves its third act to another location.
Office Christmas Party isn’t a great comedy by any stretch of the imagination, but I think it works pretty well for a couple of reasons. The first is TJ Miller’s character, Clay, and the decision to make him a nice guy. So often in films like this, the stunted man-baby character is a mean-spirited a-hole that sinks the good will you need for comedy to be fun. Clay is a genuinely nice person who cares about the people who work for him. He desperately wants to save their jobs. Miller is probably most well known at this point for HBO’s Silicon Valley (or possibly Deadpool). On that show, he plays an obnoxiously deluded venture capitalist, a choice that would have made Office Christmas Party a cheerless slog. Liking Clay makes the film more likable.
The other reason is the great, off-kilter work of Kate McKinnon. I didn’t find her all that funny in Ghostbusters when other people were hailing her, but here the oddness seems way more grounded in reality and it works. As the film progresses and more details about Mary emerge (She once reported herself for sexual harassment.), the character builds some really nice comic momentum. She’s very, very funny. The film’s also a who’s who of comedy character actors like Matt Walsh, Jillian Bell, Randall Park, Vanessa Bayer and Fortune Feimster. Nobody will probably ever use Olivia Munn as well as Aaron Sorkin did in The Newsroom, but I was disappointed she didn’t get more fun stuff to do.
Is Office Christmas Party a new holiday classic? Probably not. But I found it to be a surprisingly fun party that had the good sense to go home long before some really bad choices could get made. Your mileage may vary.