Office Christmas Party

December 16, 2016
T.J Miller and Courtney B. Vance in Office Christmas Party (2016)
T.J Miller and Courtney B. Vance in Office Christmas Party (2016)

T.J.Miller, one of the stars of Office Christmas Party, was arrested last week for slapping someone across the back of the head after an argument about Donald Trump. In the movie he presides – with apparent impunity – over an evening of massive destruction of private property and numberless offences against good taste. In a fair world the penalties for these crimes would be reversed.

It’s always a bad sign when a movie has two directors, three scriptwriters and three more responsible for the “story”. Rightly or wrongly, one imagines a long evening with a group of drunk and stoned people sitting around imagining all the gross things that could happen at an office Christmas party. Then it’s over to the professionals to whip this material into shape. In this case, the writing team includes luminaries such as Dan Mazer, director of Dirty Grandpa – the film that should’ve forced Robert De Niro into retirement, if not exile.

A film made to cash in on the end-of-year collective release of tension in the workplace, Office Christmas Party is a dark fantasy disguised as a comedy. Wouldn’t you just love to push a copying machine through a plate glass window? Pile up all the furniture and make a bonfire in the centre of the room? See the toilets turned into a copulation station?

The problem with these films is not the violence and the sleaze, it’s the brittle sentimentality and attempts at romance that try to make viewers believe there is an attempt at a coherent narrative. Characters who are no more than cartoons are given a cursory third dimension, to promote a primitive form of sympathy or identification. It may seem far-fetched but we’re talking about a target audience with an insatiable appetite for anything that enables you to leave your brain at the door when you enter the cinema.

The story, as such, is rudimentary. T.J.Miller is Clay Vanstone, head of the Chicago branch of Zenotek, an Internet company started by his late father. Jennifer Aniston is his sister, Carol, newly appointed CEO of the firm who is hell-bent on cutting costs and increasing efficiencies. The only other characters that are anything more than comic props are Clay’s right-hand man, Josh Parker (Jason Bateman), and computer whiz, Tracey Hughes (Olivia Munn), for whom Josh has an unrequited passion.

Carol, playing Scrooge, tells Clay the office Christmas party is cancelled, and massive lay-offs are required in the new year. Josh and Clay realise the only hope of forestalling the cuts is to secure a mega contract in the face of stiff competition. They decide to hold the party after all, and invite their would-be client, Walter Davis (Courtney B. Vance), in the hope that he’ll have such a wild time the contract will be theirs.

Everything else follows from this decision, which provides the raison d’etre for the be-all-and-end-all party that ensues. Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you’ll all be fired – unless we can secure this contract.

It may not have been what the filmmakers intended but I found myself sympathising with Carol’s decision to come down hard on her goofy brother, who seems singularly unsuited to run a business. Had it been a Coen brothers’ film he would have been exterminated after the first half hour.

Neither did I find much to recommend the colourless Josh and Tracey, who are supposed to be the capable, sensible members of staff – although this impression is undermined when they put on a dance routine in snowman outfits. It seems that Jason Bateman is always expected to play the straight man: the average guy, just like you and me, thrown into one extreme situation after another. It’s a terrible fate for any actor, and Bateman is uninteresting enough to carry it off.

As for Olivia Munn, a quick glance at her CV reveals a long line of pretty terrible films, although things are looking up, as she is soon to star in a Lego ninja movie followed by a remake of The Predator.

Even Kate McKinnon, who enjoyed her five minutes of fame playing Hillary Clinton on Saturday Night Live, has an appalling role as Mary, the neurotic HR officer, who gets to negotiate the obligatory fart jokes. Death and taxes may be the only inevitable things in life, but farts and pizza enjoy the same status in popular American cinema.

The rest of the cast is carefully divided among different ethnicities, giving the pleasing impression that one can be just as big a jerk regardless of whether you’re black, white, Korean or Indian. This is the peculiar interface where Political Correctness finds its way into movies that set out to be anarchic and irreverent.

It’s also there in Aniston’s parody of the bad, hard-nosed capitalist, who is prepared to sacrifice staff in a ruthless quest for profit. But it’s easier to make fun of the corporate psychopath than to deal with his or her remorseless rise in the real world. The new Trumpian version of government, to be run along business lines, promises an even more fertile environment for economic rationalists. It’s pleasing to know we still have hilarious, screwball comedies which allow us to laugh all the way to the poor house.

Office Christmas Party
Directed by Will Speak & Josh Gordon
Written by Justin Malen, Laura Solon & Dan Mazer, after a story by Jon Lucas, Scott Moore & Timothy Dowling
Starring Jason Bateman, Olivia Munn, T.J.Miller, Jennifer Aniston, Kate McKinnon, Courtney B. Vance, Abbey Lee, Rob Corddry, Vanessa Bayer
USA, rated MA 15+, 105 mins

Australian Financial Review, Saturday 17 December, 2016