Seth Rogen makes funny look easy. This time a year ago, the comic actor-producer’s gloriously bawdy The Night Before was jingling its balls on thousands of screens. At the time, I wrote in this publication that “few comedies in recent memory measure up to middle hour of ‘The Night Before’ in its hedonistic inspiration, its rat-a-tat barrage of brilliant material, one joke colliding into the next like stampeding bulls. … It’s quite possible that this is the funniest film in years.” Emphasis mine.
High praise, and it feels even higher after sitting through 2016’s anarcho-holiday debauchery, Office Christmas Party, which for all intents and purposes should tickle us in the same riotous, uncomfortable places as Rogen’s picture. They share much in common: a curated ensemble of naturally funny people crash-landing in outrageous situations, a narrative sprawled across a single Dionysian night, at least one garishly memorable Christmas sweater.
Yet the chasm between these comedies is vast. Why is Rogen’s tripped-out reception of sexted penis photos on a stranger’s cellphone hilarious, while Office Christmas Party’s Jason Bateman fellating eggnog through the phallus of an ice sculpture so … not? It has to do with concept and execution — the fresh versus the rehashed, the genuinely shocking versus the sophomorically provocative. You could say the prior film also contained that indefinable X factor that only the most gifted comedy practitioners display, but the difference between these like-minded movies can be summed up in one word: Wit. You’ve either got it or you don’t.
Office Christmas Party, for all the effortlessly clever, quick-on-their-feet comedians it parades across the screen, lacks this most central ingredient in comedy — like that eggnog without the spike. It’s set in and around the cratering Chicago branch of the fictitious IT company Zenotek, which is managed by Zenotek’s late founder’s slacker son, Clay Vanstone (T.J. Miller). Clay’s all-business sister Carol (Jennifer Aniston), Zenotek’s CEO, promptly positioned as the latest Horrible Boss and the movie’s callous Grinch, arrives at Clay’s office wearing all black and carrying everything but a scythe.
The epic holiday party Clay has scheduled for the evening is off, Carol says. The company can’t afford it, and moreover, she’s canceling everybody’s Christmas bonuses and is planning to lay off 40 percent of the staff — unless Clay’s crack team can strike a deal with an influential tech investor (Courtney B. Vance) over the next 24 hours. What better way to entice the man’s business than at a clandestine Christmas rager?
The ensuing bacchanalia is comprised of much shopworn folderol: spilled cocaine that winds up in the wrong nose, a wandering escort hired for all the wrong reasons, a superfluous sports-star cameo, breasts on the copy machine, genitals on the 3-D printer. It’s only a matter of time before the hard partiers send the most hulking pieces of office equipment crashing through the windows of their skyscraping office.
Office Christmas Party is content to recycle tropes from the better cubicle-culture satires of the past two decades, namely Office Space and The Office, whose own outsized characters exude documentary purity next to this film’s workplace fantasy. Every Zenotek employee with a speaking part is either beautiful, daffy or both, with Bateman once again the voice of reason in a Bosch painting, the middle-management straight man clustered among hypersexual screwballs. Recognizable human behavior is in short supply.
Not for nothing, there is a fundamental saving grace to Office Christmas Party. This is a titanically stupid film, but in their casting, directors Will Speck and Josh Gordon exhibit an almost-subversive rejection of popular culture’s white male hegemony. Every authority character is either a woman or African-American, from Aniston’s high-powered — and, we come to learn, martial-arts-trained — CEO to Vance’s six-figure businessman to Jillian Bell’s unorthodox, deranged pimp. As Zenotek’s coding genius, Olivia Munn, doing her Newsroom thing again, is inevitably the smartest person in any room, at any time. In a decidedly unprogressive year, Office Christmas Party’s equal-opportunity milieu is its own kind of holiday refresher.
OFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY. Directors: Josh Gordon and Will Speck; Cast: Jason Bateman, T.J. Miller, Olivia Munn, Kate McKinnon, Courtney B. Vance, Jennifer Aniston, Jillian Bell, Vanessa Bayer, Rob Corddry; Distributor: Paramount; Rating: R; Opens: Friday at most area theaters