Lucy (Demi Moore), the egomaniacal CEO of a once-lucrative edible cutlery company, knows that she has to keep her employees hungry in order to keep them in check; in order to keep them eager for her approval so that they don’t realize how little her approval really means. But when a team-building retreat goes wrong and the entire workforce of Incredible Edibles is trapped inside of a collapsed cave, the hunger Lucy has always stoked in them may come back to bite her in the ass.
That’s pretty much all there is to it when it comes to “Corporate Animals,” an amusing but almost insultingly slapdash absurdist comedy that chews on a wide buffet of workplace anxieties and power dynamics before spitting audiences out after 86 minutes of sitcom-level gags. Depending on how you look at it, the film either feels like a horrific episode of “The Office” or an absurdist riff on “The Descent,” as R-rated jokes about everything from sexual harassment to affirmative action — and everyone from Gary Sinise to Harvey Weinstein — are peppered throughout a threadbare plot that hinges on a masturbation-powered lamp and just the slightest taste of cannibalism. If only Lucy’s team had packed some more of their own product.
Director Patrick Brice, whose previous movies have revealed a rare talent for exposing modern panics via ridiculous premises — “The Overnight,” for example, leveraged a large prosthetic penis into an affecting portrait of male insecurity and self-worth — assembles yet another wonderful cast, but the story is too threadbare for most of them to shine. Freddie is the closest thing that “Corporate Animals” has to a main character, and it’s fun to watch “Safety Not Guaranteed” star Karan Soni thrive as a leading man. First presented as the nerdy ass-kisser who does all of Lucy’s dirty work, Freddie is soon revealed to be a decent and ingenious striver whose potential has been severely handicapped by the tilted power dynamics of an inter-office affair. Thanks to a company culture that seems to have been inspired by the political maneuvering in “Game of Thrones,” Freddie finds himself pitted against a hyper-capable recent hire named Jess (Jessica Williams). Lucy has promised them both the same promotion, hoping that her best employees will be too busy cutting each other down to ever consider rising up.
Other members of the doomed Incredible Edibles team include a lesbian couple (Jennifer Kim and Nasim Pedrad), two mentally checked-out sales guys (Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Dan Bakkedahl), a deadpan mom who seems resigned to her fate (Martha Kelly), and an eager young intern (“American Vandal” breakout Calum Worthy) who begins having visions of Britney Spears when the cut on his leg turns gangrenous. Ed Helms has a glorified cameo as a useless course guide who’s as unenthused by his job as everyone else, but his character is mostly there to feed the others; Helms’ endows the role with a funny kind of “it’s your funeral” vibe, but there just isn’t a lot of meat on his bones, especially after everyone starts to eat him.
Screenwriter Sam Bain, whose “Four Lions” remains the funniest script ever written about Islamist terrorism, knows how to mine sensitive material for serious laughs. And, notwithstanding the delicious parody ad that kicks off the film (“you can’t eat food without cutlery, but you can eat cutlery without food), the best parts of “Corporate Animals” are the ones in which the script takes cock-eyed aim at the uncomfortable absurdities of the modern American workplace.
Moore — displaying some dormant comedic chops — perfectly channels the egotism of a beautiful white lady who thinks she’s earned her privilege, and only hires people of color so that she can put herself on the back for her progressiveness; Lucy is every powerful boss who thinks that her employees should feel lucky to work for them. Her “diversity hires,” however, prove to be far more capable without her leadership. Brice’s comedy, while shot with the two-camera casualness of a YouTube sketch and full of tossed-off jokes that make the whole movie feel like the first draft of a much better film we’ll never get to see, occasionally comes into focus as a clear-eyed look at the rigidity of corporate power structures, and how extreme circumstances have to get in order for people to break free from them. In the film, as in the the workplace, everyone has a lot to offer, and far too few of them are given the chance to prove it.
“Corporate Animals” premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently looking for U.S. distribution.