Chicago’s hottest club is a midtown tech company called Zenotek Data Storage Systems, and it has everything: Santa Claus sitting on the Iron Throne, Kate McKinnon playing a flatulent HR lady, and — most importantly — a lethal dose of Baniston (that’s that thing where Jason Bateman and Jennifer Aniston exhume the toxic non-chemistry they’ve already brought to four other, even more excruciating comedies). 50 times longer than the unrelated “SNL” sketch of the same name and somehow featuring half as many laughs, “Office Christmas Party” is the perfect holiday movie for that one dude at your job who still quotes “Wedding Crashers” every time you’re forced to interact with him, screaming “You shut your mouth when you’re talking to me!” in a crowded elevator that’s filled with strangers who work on other floors. You know who I’m talking about.
This is a studio comedy on auto-pilot, a movie that lets its title do the vast majority of the heavy lifting. Like any office Christmas party you’ve ever been forced to attend, it kind of feels a little bit too much like work to be fun, and — like any office Christmas party you’ve ever been forced to attend — it’s just a tiny bit too diverting for you to storm out before the whole thing crawls to its sad conclusion.
Directed by Josh Gordon and Will Speck, whose previous work includes “Blades of Glory” (which is best known for being sampled by Kanye West), “The Switch” (which is best known for being a movie about Jason Bateman’s sperm), and the short-lived television show “Cavemen” (which is best known for being the worst idea that humans ever had prior to November 2016), “Office Christmas Party” is just another story of adults behaving badly. The plot is established so fast that it feels less like you’re watching the finished film than you are the elevator pitch that got it green-lit: Clay (T. J. Miller) is the fun-loving head of Zenotek’s struggling Chicago branch. Carol (Aniston) is his cutthroat sister and CEO, and she’s leaning towards massive layoffs. Josh (Bateman) is the company’s CTO, and Tracey (Olivia Munn, packing a little more charisma than the film can contend with) is his brilliant co-worker and old flame. And then, pivotally, there’s Walter (Courtney B. Vance) the account man whose business the Zenotek folks are desperately trying to woo. How to earn his business while restoring morale amongst the rest of the staff? I’ll give you three words and one guess.
Essentially a half-assed hodgepodge of “Sisters” and “Office Space,” the film unfolds just as you would expect, transitioning from “Dilbert” to “Caligula” in all of the most obvious ways. The party swells out of control, hordes of uninvited guests show up, and a bag of cocaine is accidentally funneled through the snow machine. All the while, Gordon and Speck do their best to distract you from the banality of their main characters, the directors happily following the script as it splinters off into a half-dozen different subplots of varying stupidity.
A couple of these threads hold together pretty tight — “22 Jump Street” scene-stealer Jillian Bell has some brilliant moments as a two-faced pimp, and Fortune Feimster wrings a staggering number of laughs from the one joke she’s given as an outspoken Uber driver — and the ones that fray are euthanized quickly and with a rare dose of mercy. Cringing at the blossoming romance between a single mom (Vanessa Bayer) and a new hire with a baby fetish (Randall Park)? At least the movie has the good sense to nip it in the bud and partner Bayer’s character with another actor who has nothing to do.
Such is the fate of a film that overindulges some of its cast members while terribly underutilizing the others, as spending time with any of the supporting players — even Rob Corddry, who might very possibly just be playing himself — is preferable to spending time with Josh or Carol. He’s a bore, she’s a grinch, and the relationship between them is so lightly sketched that the movie almost doesn’t bother to explain how they manage to patch things up at the end. That leaves us with a limp orgy of non-jokes in search of something to justify them, symbols of humor without any of the grace or timing required to galvanize them into actual comedy. Of course, office Christmas parties aren’t supposed to be fun, they’re supposed to be a full-scale model of fun that’s dripping with the discomfort of having it forced upon everyone there. In that sense, at least, “Office Christmas Party” might be a little too real for its own good.
“Office Christmas Party” opens in theaters on December 9th.