Office Christmas Party

Review by Elena Lazic @elazic

Directed by

Josh Gordon Will Speck

Starring

Jason Bateman Jennifer Aniston Kate McKinnon

Anticipation.

Looks pretty awful, but Jennifer Aniston can be a gem in these kinds of roles.

Enjoyment.

As car-crash cinema goes, this is like witnessing a really long, tedious pile-up.

In Retrospect.

A disturbing ode to capitalism and an ill-conceived waste of talent.

This lurid abomination showcases the very worst of Hollywood’s current comedy set.

By attempting to treat expendable employees as though they were family, office christmas parties present the clearest visualisation of the hypocrisy central to profit-driven business. This becomes all the more obvious in the film Office Christmas Party in which bosses of the Chicago branch of an internet company use the annual celebration not so much as a treat for deserving employees, but rather as a business opportunity to show a big client a good time and save the branch from termination.

It’s telling that the sense of crushing inhumanity powering this situation, where business and social life are morphed together, is not treated with the profound disdain and real existential dread found in films like Office Space or in both US and UK iterations of TV show The Office. Instead, this new film half-heartedly – and often with great difficulty – strives to present the opportunistic scenario as quite normal, the backdrop for an escalating comedy of embarrassment and gross out high-jinx.

A series of miserable, completely disconnected and heavily improvised jokes ensue. The characters attempt to find humour in this awful situation. Watching the film feels like something akin to scrolling down the Twitter timeline of a sad person attempting to cheer themselves up with bad-to-average jokes. It goes without saying that this profound sense of anxiety and sadness proves the very opposite of the Christmas spirit.

The film’s problems, however, stem not so much from the inherent humourlessness of the story, as from another, far more insidious tendency witnessed in multiple post-Apatow Hollywood comedies. Rather than putting in the work to construct a solid comedy in the traditional sense – with events and characters in the film being funny to viewers but not necessarily to the characters within its world – this new breed of US comedy appears like lots of slapdash live recordings of second-rate stand-up comedians improvising jokes in random situations. In each instance, the humour stems not from the story, but from an uninterrupted series of non-sequiturs and interchangeable one-liners churned out by a cast of Saturday Night Live regulars.

The style admittedly does give each performer a chance to shine. Yet most refuse to show any of their great talent, instead playing shy or falling into boring self-deprecation. Their jokes aren’t that funny, and purposefully so. Indeed, the whole enterprise reeks of a kind of anti-wit, anti-intellectualism and a paralysing apprehension towards being genuinely amusing, intelligent or interesting. To make matters worse, the stop-and-start rhythm of this sort of improvisational comedy is completely at odds with the race-against-time story which requires a constant forward movement. To trade the sense of escalation for sitcom flatness is a jarring mismatch.

Only Jennifer Aniston and Jillian Bell dare to give any real arc to their characters. They are the funniest performers in the film precisely because they are not playing themselves or comedian personas dressed up in costumes, constantly cracking jokes or pulling weird faces like the absolutely unbearable Kate McKinnon.

Of course, the film naturally associates this type of ‘old-school’, intelligent character comedy with unlikeable characters. Bell plays a brutal pimp while Aniston plays Carol Vanston, the company CEO who threatens to close the Chicago branch managed by her unbearably irresponsible and inexplicably lucky brother Clay Vanstone (TJ Miller). In both his character and approach to business, Clay embodies the search for instant-gratification gleaned by minimum effort that is also promoted by the film’s lazy improv comedy. It is Clay with whom we are encouraged to identify. By contrast according to the film’s weird logic his sister Carol’s professionalism and work ethic makes her largely unlikeable and dull. Unsurprisingly in this festival of monstrosities, the film sinks so low as to make Carol’s perfectly commendable attitude look bad by having it motivated not by genuine business sense, but by resentment and spite.

Aniston all but redeems the film. In fact, watching the sequences she dominates, you may find yourself dreaming of a total reverse of Office Christmas Party, imagining a version where her Carol deals with a host of terribly infantile employees whose puerile lifestyle is never validated as acceptable or ultimately useful to successful business practice. Under the guise of a celebration of friendship over money, the film finds needlessly complicated and unconvincing ways to emulate a purely reactionary message. In the end, profit and a deus ex machina enabling profit are the only things that truly matter.

Published 7 Dec 2016

Tags: Jason Bateman Jennifer Aniston Kate McKinnon TJ Miller

Anticipation.

Looks pretty awful, but Jennifer Aniston can be a gem in these kinds of roles.

Enjoyment.

As car-crash cinema goes, this is like witnessing a really long, tedious pile-up.

In Retrospect.

A disturbing ode to capitalism and an ill-conceived waste of talent.

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