The ‘party getting out of hand’ narrative is one we’ve seen many times before, whether it be it Animal House, Project X or Sisters, and Josh Gordon and Will Speck’s Office Christmas Party bears similarities to the latter, in that we’re watching this night of destruction and debauchery unfold between (supposedly) respectable adults. This is the film’s selling point, as we watch on as the 9 to 5 brigade loosen their ties and get down and dirty, but the overriding sense of familiarity is more a curse than a blessing on this particular endeavour.
Following the arrival of CEO Carol (Jennifer Aniston), her younger brother Clay (T.J. Miller) is warned that his branch of their father’s business is risking closure, if they don’t make an impossible amount of money in the next 24 hours. So with a multi-million dollar contract on the line, the eccentric boss decides to throw a mega Christmas party to impress potential business partner Walter (Courtney B. Vance) and save the jobs of his employees. Alongside his hard-working colleagues Josh (Jason Bateman) and Tracey (Olivia Munn), they start preparing for an event so spectacular that the contract will surely be theirs by the time the night is up. At least that’s the idea.
Bateman represents the viewer within this picture as he so often does, appearing as something of a cipher, the everyman peering into this mad and dangerous environment. It’s a role he’s so accomplished at playing, for he has this wonderfully comedic, deadpan persona and constant look of bemusement smacked across his face – yet like any traditionalist comedic device of this nature, the joke here is that he’s just as mad as those he surrounds himself with, as behind the facade lies a man equally as prone to destruction. Though Bateman is the lead in this tale, it’s an ensemble piece with a whole myriad of characters, and credit must go to Speck and Gordon for balancing each respective arc, and allowing every character time to flourish.
Narratively, however, Office Christmas Party is frustratingly contrived, with an inclination to maintain a sense of immensity where on occasion a more understated approach would be beneficial. Like many disaster comedies, ranging from The Sitter to 30 Minutes or Less to anything Harold & Kumar seem to appear in, the writers believe that throwing in several obstacles for the protagonists to overcome makes for compelling cinema, but less is so often more. As soon as the pimps arrive, and the guns are wielded, or car chases occur, it’s here the viewer’s attention is put to the test, as it’s the more character driven elements that evoke any humour, not the forced set-pieces.
What transpires is a truly generic comedy that seems averse to attempting anything new. To follow all the same beats of the genre and abide by the formula in place can be comforting, but only when the material is strong enough that you don’t notice, and regrettably the laughs in Office Christmas Party are few and far between. That said, it’s still a party that looks quite enticing to attend, better than anything us Brits manage during the festive period. We just drink mulled wine, talk about work and make sure we leave to catch the last train home. Which, come to think of it, may just have made a better movie.