Office Christmas Party is a mess. Far from a carefully orchestrated festive frivolity, it feels more like it was quickly cobbled together from whatever happened to be lying around the staff canteen.
Office Christmas Party plays like a seasonal-themed pot luck; a combination of weird flavours that might work well in other contexts or on their own, only to clash awkwardly when thrown together. There is a mix-tape quality to the film, as is probably to be expected in a movie with a cast this expansive. However, Office Christmas Party never finds a centre around which it might arrange this particular tale. Instead, it feels like a half-hearted collection of mad-libs that have been shamelessly borrowed from other and better films.
Most strikingly, Office Christmas Party feels like a weird companion piece to Horrible Bosses. There are any number of strong connections between the films: the casting of Jason Bateman and Jennifer Aniston, who worked together with directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck on The Switch; the fairly shallow “boy, we sure hate our day jobs and the economy!” aesthetic; the anxious mingling of middle-class professionals with street criminals for comedic contrast.
However, Office Christmas Party lacks the same basic cohesion of the original Horrible Bosses. It has no sense of structure or momentum, no clear singular purpose or uniting threat. The plot is a loose assemblage of nonsensical things that happen, from staging an elaborate Christmas party to impress a potential client through to “fixing the internet.” There is a car chase that is awkwardly set up, a lot of drugs, and an aborted stunt. However, the plot never rises about “… and then this happens…”
To be fair, this would not be an issue of itself. To stretch the merry metaphor or season simile, the plot of comedy is largely incidental. It is a like a Christmas tree. It is good if the tree is full and impressive. However, even the most mediocre of trees can be made to sparkle if the right ornaments and decorations are hung from it. Weak plots never affected films like The Life of Brian or Airplane!, because the plot was ultimately little more than a Christmas tree upon which the writers could hang amusing jokes.
The real problem with Office Christmas Party is that the jokes are simply not that funny. More than that, they are overly familiar. Characters and concepts seem ported over from other films, as if Office Christmas Party is re-gifting. There is more care to the film than the particularly tired iterations of the increasingly common “reference to this thing that you recognise” comedy; the packaging has been changed and the wrapping is crisp. But, underneath it all, there is a sense that Office Christmas Party is just a collection of familiar things hastily assembled.
(There is also a fair amount of that “reference to this thing that you recognise” comedy to the film. At one point, a character prays to God asking him to tell both Prince and David Bowie that they are awesome. “They already know that,” he reflects. At another point, Santa sits on a copy of the Iron Throne in a reference to Game of Thrones. These are not jokes, so much as nods towards things with which the audience might be familiar. It feels almost like Office Christmas Party is trying to worm its way into the audience’s affections in the most shallow manner.)
Many of the characters and performers feel recycled. Jason Bateman is essentially playing the same character he played in Horrible Bosses, the balanced hard-working straight man positioned at the narrative’s centre. Kate McKinnion effectively reprises her Hillary Clinton impersonation from Saturday Night Live as the film’s buzz-killing HR manager. Rob Corddry is obnoxious and aggressive. Jillian Bell is at once charming and erratic, recalling her role in 22 Jump Street. T.J. Miller is an eccentric head of a tech company, as in Silicon Valley.
These elements are all blended together in a way that feels as if the writers wrote the script over a cup of coffee discussing things that they enjoyed from the last few years in terms of popular culture. However, none of these beats feel as fresh as they did when they were first played, and the actors often seem quite tired at having to repeat themselves. Office Christmas Party features a murder’s row of incredible comedic talent, but they are never given anything to chew.
More than that, there is a fundamental disjointedness to Office Christmas Party. It often feels like the movie had difficulty getting the cast in the same room. This is understandable. It makes sense that the cast’s schedules might not overlap, but the result is that the eponymous office celebration feels as geographically diffuse as Game of Thrones. Characters rarely interact with one another outside of the demands of their own (seemingly random) plot threads, most notable with Jason Bateman and Olivia Munn for the film’s second act.
Towards the film’s climax, there is a fairly dramatic action chase and action sequence. However, the characters involved in that sequence feel like they have been chosen because the actors could commit to the shooting schedule. This leads to a strange disconnect when Office Christmas Party builds towards the inevitable life-affirming “everybody in the company comes together” ending, because it feels like approximately half the characters were completely absent from any plot developments that might have built a sense of solidarity between them.
The result is disappointing, and not something that anybody would particularly hope to find under the tree.