Monday, December 12, 2016

'Office Christmas Party' review

Office Christmas Party may have the most obvious title of the year, one that pretty much sums up exactly what happens in this raunchy studio comedy. It's Christmas, there's an office, and there's one wild party. If you manage your expectations, you'll probably have a pretty good time. This movie isn't especially clever and it certainly doesn't reinvent the wheel, but it delivers precisely what it promises- good, old-fashioned R-rated fun with a healthy dose of holiday cheer. Bolstered by an all-star cast that includes Jason Bateman, T.J. Miller, Olivia Munn, SNL superstar Kate McKinnon, and The People v. O.J. Simpson's Courtney B. Vance (like you've never seen him before), Office Christmas Party is a delightful burst of fun from start to finish. Directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck throw an endless amount of jokes on the screen, and more times than not, they hit hard. The pacing is relentless, the characters are endlessly likable, and the movie is just funny as hell. Office Christmas Party gets progressively more insane as it goes along, and while it may get bogged down in the trappings of modern situational comedy, this is still a wild and highly entertaining Yuletide ride from start to finish.

It's Christmas in Chicago, and Zenotek Industries is preparing for their annual holiday festivities. The company branch is run by Clay Vanstone (T.J. Miller), the endearing, scatter-brained son of Zenotek's original CEO. Clay's sister, Carol (Jennifer Aniston), took over the company after their father's passing, and she's none too pleased by Clay's antics in Chicago. The branch is failing, and the only bright spot is the performance of Josh Parker (Jason Bateman), the Chief Technical Officer. As the employees of Zenotek spend the morning preparing for their "non-denominational holiday mixer" (as specified by Mary, the overbearing human resources leader), Carol shows up to crush the company's holiday spirit. She wants to make massive cuts to the branch, which would include removing bonuses, laying off workers, and even moving Josh to the company's headquarters in Chicago.

This devastates Clay, who sees that his father's once harmonious company is becoming more depressed and divided as each day passes by. He sees the holidays as the once chance to bring them all together, but with Carol being a Grinch, things can only go south from there. But after a little bit of prodding, Carol gives Josh, Clay, and tech wunderkind Tracey (Olivia Munn) one chance to redeem themselves. If they can somehow convince Walter Davis (Courtney B. Vance) to sign a deal with Zenotek, then there won't be any cuts and the holiday spirit is saved. However, Davis is far from an easy sell- he's one of the most sought-after clients in the tech industry. After an initial meeting, Davis balks at Zenotek's offer, saying that he hates the culture of the corporation. Suddenly, the lightbulb goes off in Clay's mind- throw the wildest Christmas party in history, and maybe Davis will realize that Zenotek is the place to be. Things start off well enough, but the office quickly turns into a raucous war zone, allowing for the most insane office party in history.

Oddly enough, Office Christmas Party's biggest flaw is that there's too much story. This is the trap that most modern comedies fall into- the idea that you need a complex plot with twists and turns to make a good movie. I don't understand the line of thinking on that, because many of the best comedies exist on a pure situational and concept level. Sure, there needs to be some semblance of story to keep your movie chugging along, but it shouldn't dominate every scene, and it shouldn't be so ludicrous that it distracts from the reality that your movie is based in. Office Christmas Party hits both of these walls at various points, with the latter especially becoming an issue during the second half of the film. There were some moments that really made me scratch my head, some plot twists that had me rolling my eyes, and a denouement that is truly groan-inducing. When the team of screenwriters (comprised of a whopping 6 people) works hard to turn the wheels of the plot machinations, you can tell.

The over-complicated, needlessly drawn out story is the most frustrating part about Office Christmas Party, because beyond that, it's really a lot of fun. Christmas comedies are right up my alley, and going into my screening last week, I was hoping for a delightful bit of holiday merriment to brighten up my week. Maybe my expectations played into my enjoyment of this film, but if you go into this movie with the right mindset, I firmly believe that you will have a good time. Everybody in the cast is working at the top of their game throughout the entire film, and the jokes fly at you so fast that for every gag that misses, there's three that hit you square in the funny bone. When Gordon and Speck turn the movie into a frenetic orgy of chaos and destruction, Office Christmas Party is truly elevated to a different level of hilarity. The Chicago setting is a nice homage to Christmas movies of years past, and the filmmaking on display is fluid and effective. And even though it never reaches the dizzying party heights of something like Neighbors, the titular bash is quite amusing to watch.

But even though this is a movie all about sex, drugs, and wild partying, the main charm comes from the cast, filled with adept comedic veterans who are able to pull off the gags with ease. Jason Bateman is terrific as the everyman lead, and it's fun to see him paired with Jennifer Aniston once again, ironically playing another terrible boss. Aniston is a salty, pissed off riot as the Scrooge-esque Carol Vanstone, a corporate shill with no sense of humanity or compassion. T.J. Miller can be annoying in the wrong circumstances (I wasn't a fan of his Critics' Choice gig), but with a focused script, the comedian can turn any character into a sympathetic favorite. Clay is the emotional soul of the movie, and even though he's a seriously misguided, maybe even insane individual, he's still a good person at his core. The final member of the main crew is Olivia Munn, and she's pretty good here. I'm still not convinced of her talents as a comedian, but she works well alongside Bateman in her role.

The supporting cast is responsible for some of the movie's best jokes, and I don't think their contribution to Office Christmas Party can be valued enough. The year of Kate McKinnon continues here with another hilarious role, one that feels like it was written for her. Rob Corddry, Sam Richardson, Vanessa Bayer, Karan Soni, and Randall Park all have standout moments and scenes, including some that are just unbelievably raunchy and insane. But in the end, two stars shine brighter than the rest of the pack- Courtney B. Vance and Jillian Bell. The latter broke onto the scene with 2014's 22 Jump Street, and this is the second year in a row that she's starring in a Christmas comedy (The Night Before is better, but I digress). Bell plays a pimp for Abbey Lee's fake girlfriend, and she just steals every scene she's in. Vance, an acclaimed actor and the star of this year's The People v. O.J. Simpson, gets to let loose in a wild role that involves a tad too much cocaine and a daring stunt. It gets crazy.

Office Christmas Party isn't a classic by any stretch, but it's not hard for me to imagine putting it in my yearly holiday rotation. It's a fun, fast-paced movie, a silly comedy that feels preposterous and wacky instead of mean-spirited or acidic. The cast is great, and while there's some lowbrow humor that misses the mark and a plot that's a bit too convoluted, Gordon and Speck make up for it with some excellent comedic setpieces and a healthy dose of Christmas cheer. It's filthy and it's stupid and it's a whole lot of fun. My expectations were more than met by Office Christmas Party, and in the end, that's all that I was asking for.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B                                              (7.4/10)

Image Credits: Coming Soon, Indiewire, Paramount 

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