Though everything from the marketing campaign to the movie’s title might lead you to think otherwise, “Office Christmas Party” turns out to be the story of how a company called Zenotek hatched the most significant advance in internet technology of the new millennium. As such, the movie is dealing with either far too much plot or not nearly enough, since all those who buy tickets no doubt think they’re about to witness the rowdiest holiday party this side of “Die Hard” — and would have been content with the HR director dropping cocaine in the snow machine, T.J. Miller emceeing inappropriate holiday raps, and random employees making photocopies of their butts.
In other words, nobody cares what the folks at Zenotek do for a living, and even if their jobs wind up revolutionizing the way human beings use the internet, every second spent trying to justify the company’s existence is a second not invested in making this the funniest “Office Christmas Party” it can possibly be. (It’s like a “Hangover” movie in which the characters happen to discover the cure for cancer — you can’t help but think that maybe the screenwriters were focused on the wrong thing.) If the kids in “Project X” can throw a better house party than a bunch of Chicago grown-ups, then something’s wrong with this picture.
From a casting perspective, directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck (“Blades of Glory”) do everything they can to spike this punch bowl, bringing back Jason Bateman and Jennifer Aniston (whom they directed in “The Switch”) to play the company’s chief technical officer, Josh Parker, and its fun-averse interim CEO, Carol Vanstone, respectively. Josh has just gotten his divorce papers, clearing the way for him to shag co-worker Tracey Hughes (Olivia Munn). Carol has an axe to grind with fun-loving, yet irresponsible brother Clay (Miller), and is threatening to cancel Christmas bonuses and close down the Chicago branch. In fact, she’s just about as Grinchy as it gets, even pretending to call Santa when an unsuspecting child makes her personal naughty list.
While these four struggle over the film’s unnecessary plot — something involving a long-shot attempt to impress a potential business partner (Courtney B. Vance) by throwing an epic holiday party — Zenotek’s lower-ranking employees find creative ways to test the limits of the company’s HR code, enforced by uptight office spoil-sport Mary (“Saturday Night Live’s” resident Hillary Clinton, Kate McKinnon, whose character is a little too easy to anticipate here, forcing the gifted comedienne to resort to fart jokes and random eye scowls).
Fresh off of “Deadpool,” where he played Ryan Reynolds’ taxi driver, Indian-American actor Karan Soni resorts to desperate measures to make good on talk of his imaginary hot girlfriend, hiring an escort to accompany him to the party (Jillian Bell is hilarious as the unhinged pimp who provides him Victoria’s Secret model Abbey Lee for the occasion). “Trainwreck” scene-stealer Vanessa Bayer picks the wrong guy to make out with in the office daycare center, and Rob Corddry makes for world’s angriest custom service rep.
Turn them loose, and this cast has nearly endless potential to be outrageous, and yet, the script (which involves contributions from at least six writers, including “Borat” conspirator Dan Mazer and “The Hangover” duo Jon Lucas and Scott Moore) keeps interrupting the festivities with unnecessary details about whether the company will even be around tomorrow. Once word gets out to the city at large that a party’s underway, random Chicagoans start to crash the event (a perfect opportunity for Fortune Feimster to steal scenes as an over-familiar Uber driver’s first day on the job), and for some reason, they seem to understand the situation better: If tomorrow’s uncertain, why not burn the place to the ground?
After more than an hour of slow-to-build setup, there’s a montage in the middle where Gordon and Speck take inventory of where things stand, and here, cycling through the mayhem with scenes that suggest the twisted paintings of Bosch or Bruegel — a man dressed as Jesus rides a horse through the crowd, hyper-vigilant security guard Da’Vine Joy Randolph tasers anyone caught trying to boost office equipment — the film finally delivers on its potential. And then Aniston’s character gets wind of the fact her brother is throwing a party behind her back, and both she and the plot come crashing back in to spoil the fun.
Clearly, the kernel of inspiration behind this whole out-of-control rager was nostalgia for less politically correct times. The movie wants to channel the anarchic spirit of National Lampoon productions and movies like “Bachelor Party,” where a donkey dies in the elevator, and it succeeds to a degree (here, we get reindeer in the office restroom, while an impromptu orgy unfolds in the next-door stall). Certainly, HR cop Mary has her hands full trying to keep her “non-denominational holiday mixer” from breaking too many laws, but it might have helped to set the stakes a little lower; then, the company wouldn’t necessarily have to reinvent the internet in order to get itself out of this mess — and no one would have to worry about the consequences when coming to work the next day.