The only halfway clever joke in Josh Gordon and Will Speck’s Office Christmas Party is the spectacle of watching Courtney B. Vance, playing a high-profile client who the heads of a struggling tech firm are trying to court, transform into a raucous party animal with the help of cocaine accidentally blasted toward his face. Even then, it’s only amusing because of the audience’s awareness that this is a typically buttoned-up actor swinging like Tarzan from Christmas lights and downing eggnog like a frat boy. Playing off of actors’ established brands is just about the only thing going for this all-star comedy, which essentially plays as a collision course of familiar personas.
As Josh Parker, Jason Bateman plays yet another straight man to a band of eccentrics, among them Tracey Hughes (Olivia Munn), his equally bland co-worker and possible love interest. Kate McKinnon brings her usual android-like weirdness to straight-arrow Head of Human Resources Mary Winetoss, while Rob Corddry’s aggressively in-your-face shtick as sad-sack Head of Customer Service Jeremy will be familiar to loyal Jon Stewart-era Daily Show viewers. Elsewhere, Randall Park plays a variation on his earnestly awkward Fresh Off the Boat patriarch, with the twist that his seemingly harmless character turns out to have a thing for S&M. And then there’s Jennifer Aniston, playing yet another horrible boss: Carol Vanstone, the ice-cold Zenotek CEO with lingering resentment toward her privileged slacker brother, Clay (T.J. Miller), who’s running the company’s flailing Chicago branch.
The film’s barebones plot sees the folks at Zenotek trying to throw a party in a last-ditch attempt to rescue the company from financial ruin by impressing Walter Davis (Vance) with their congenial office culture. Naturally, things go disastrously awry. But as one might expect, the plot often takes a backseat to the sheer chaotic feeling of seeing all these comic actors inhabiting one enclosed space—at least until the shenanigans spill out onto the Chicago streets in the third act. This isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself. Office Christmas Party could be considered the fast-paced comic equivalent of the disaster movies that were prolific in the 1970s, with actors brought on less to play actual people than to bring their star wattage—or, in this case, their own distinctive comic rhythms and cadences—to the melee surrounding them.
A pile-up of raunchy gags and anarchic mayhem, the film operates under the mistaken assumption that exaggerated whimsical eccentricities for their own sake, shorn of any recognizable human impulses, equals great comedy. With McKinnon laying the deadpan on a bit too thickly, Clay admitting to getting an undergraduate degree in “Canadian Television Theory with a concentration in Drake,” and Carol getting stuck in an Uber vehicle with a driver (Fortune Feimster) who goes on an unendurably long riff on the supposedly old-fashioned qualities of the name Carol, Office Christmas Party generally smacks of trying too hard to earn its laughs. Worse, the film’s attempt to wrap up all its plot and character threads in the last act never feels anything less than pro forma, since it has evinced no real interest in establishing these characters as actual flesh-and-blood people in the first place.