Assembling a whole comedy festival’s worth of very funny people isn’t a foolproof recipe for hilarity, but it should assure at least a decent number of laughs. Whether Office Christmas Party clears that very low bar depends on how generous you want to be—in this season of generosity—with the definition of “decent number” and “laughs.” Does smiling at the sight of Kate McKinnon in a bad Christmas sweater count as a laugh? Does Rob Corddry loudly telegraphing his disdain for the material deserve a pity chuckle? Is T.J. Miller giving a shout-out to Prince and David Bowie funny, or does it just provide mourning moviegoers a chance to test out that old theory about laughter being the best medicine? Directed and written by a bunch of comedy veterans with spotty resumes, Office Christmas Party counts on an overqualified cast and a literal (but unrelated) SNL premise to do the work for it. But it would take a Christmas miracle (or at least, you know, some effort) to make this yuletide ensemble look like something people will still be watching by next December.
Woolly goofball Clay (Miller) benevolently runs the Chicago branch of his deceased father’s company, ZenoTek. (They provide servers for other businesses—a detail that seems intentionally boring and incidental, until the movie for some reason pivots its third act around it.) After a bad quarter, Clay’s merciless sister Carol (Jennifer Aniston), who’s CEO of ZenoTek, demands major downsizing unless they can somehow turn things around in the final two days before Christmas. Determined to save his staff, Clay joins heads with newly divorced CTO Josh (Jason Bateman) and company tech wizard/designated Bateman love interest Tracey (Olivia Munn) to concoct a hair-brained scheme: They’ll ignore company protocol and throw a bitchin’ holiday bash, all to impress (and subsequently sign) a major client (Courtney B. Vance).
Stressed-out desk jockeys really cutting loose on company property isn’t a terrible comedic setup, even if it’s been trotted out countless times on countless network sitcoms. But Office Christmas Party can’t even be bothered to commit to its one-crazy-party premise, the kind from which last December’s Sisters got some modestly amusing mileage. Vance, who was so transfixing earlier this year as Johnnie Cochran on The People V. O.J. Simpson, seems to be having the most fun, his guest-of-honor character going from mannered stick-in-the-mud to coked-up wild man after a mishap with an artificial snow machine. But that farcical turn is about as outrageous as the movie dare goes. It settles instead for sight gags like a reindeer drinking from a toilet and instantly dated jokes about Game Of Thrones and the Fast & Furious series. This is a “bawdy” big-screen comedy any nervous HR representative could rubber stamp. In its own R-rated way, it’s safe for work.
Eventually abandoning the very shindig its title promises in favor of some sanitized mayhem on the streets of the Windy City, Office Christmas Party mostly offers its stars a chance to fumble through programmatic character arcs. Will Bateman’s heartsick nice guy get over his ruined marriage in time to woo Munn’s brainy dream girl? Will Aniston’s boss-from-hell locate some seasonal good spirit? Will office nerd Nate (Karan Soni, scoring a full supporting role after funny bit appearances in Deadpool and Ghostbusters) successfully convince his coworkers that the escort (Abbey Lee) he’s hired is really his date? Directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck, who previously paired Bateman and Aniston in 2010’s dire The Switch, provide some perfunctory Christmas-movie niceness to offset the naughtiness that never really arrives. You don’t have to be a Scrooge (or a heartless corporate bigwig) to wish everyone involved in this half-assed thing had worked a little harder in fourth quarter.