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Lots of Holiday Spirits

Jason Bateman
Jason Bateman
Paramount Pictures
 105 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by:  Josh Gordon, Will Speck
Starring: Jason Bateman, Olivia Munn, T.J. Miller
Office Christmas Party

Counterprogramming is an honored tradition in television and film marketing that usually involves attempting to schedule successful competition to what is widely perceived to be a blockbuster. Rather than merely cede the night or weekend to the competition or try to get it head on with the same type of production, the studio attempts to appeal to a competing demographic group, the theory being that a big piece of a small piece of the pie is better than an infinitesimal piece of the whole pie. Perhaps the most successful example of the strategy occurred in 2008, when Universal Pictures chose to schedule Mamma Mia opposite Warner’s Dark Knight. The result was a major box office hit, admittedly not one of superhero proportions, but a film that, including video receipts over the years, has turned a tidy profit.


In recent years, some studios have taken the concept a step further. Rather than counterprogram against a particular film, they counterprogram against an even bigger blockbuster, the holiday season. So, instead of another dose of tidings of comfort and joy, we get instead a holiday-themed film that’s the exact opposite. Last year, it was Seth Rogen, the poster child for raunchy comedy, starring in The Night Before, and, this year, we’ve already seen Bad Santa 2, a film that will be long gone from theaters before Good Santa 1 heads down from the North Pole. But, perhaps thinking that there’s always room for more R-rated toilet humor at any time of the year, Paramount gives us a heaping holiday helping thereof in Office Christmas Party, a movie that’s about as subtle as the incessant holiday music played throughout December in department stores.


Office Christmas Party is set in Chicago, at a branch office of a high tech firm called, appropriately enough, Zenotek. The founder’s son, Clay Vanstone (T.J. Miller), an amiable goofball, runs the branch with moderate success, but that’s not good enough for his sister, Carol (Jennifer Aniston), the interim CEO. She aims to increase profits by any means possible, to become the permanent head of the company, and she takes aim at Clay’s office. Two days before Christmas, she delivers an ultimatum to Clay. Unless he increases profits immediately and substantially, he’s going to have to lay off nearly half his staff before Christmas.


Fortunately, Clay and his chief information officer Josh Parker (Jason Bateman) have what they think is the answer to their dilemma. A major client, Walter Davis (Courtney B. Vance, channeling Eddie Murphy), might sign a multi-million dollar deal with Zenotek, but he’s not convinced that the company has that “something extra” to make them shine above their bigger competitors. Clay’s solution is to invite Walter to the company Christmas party. The only problem is that the party had heretofore been planned by the company’s obsessive head of HR, Mary Winetoss (Kate McKinnon), as a very sedate, politically correct mixer. Those plans, of course, go out the window, as Clay starts spending big time on a huge bash.


The actual Zenotek party is pretty much the same as every wild party in every R-rated movie made since Animal House. The party features inordinate amounts of booze, drugs, sexual encounters, and cursing, and things start getting really out of hand when someone accidentally puts cocaine in the machine that’s supposed to be blowing artificial snow around the room. The only difference, of course, is the holiday theme, as evidenced by the presence of actual reindeer and an actor garbed as Jesus.


Office Christmas Party actually turned out to be funnier than I thought. Directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck and their six credited screenwriters adhere to the “throw jokes out one after the other to see what will stick” school of filmmaking. So, there are lots of predictable bits, like the tired chestnut of using the office copier to photograph various body parts, but a few new ones as well, including a romantic encounter that goes awry when one person decides to go 50 Shades of Grey. The filmmakers have assembled a terrific comic ensemble here and know enough to give each of them their moments.


Among the cast members, Olivia Munn comes off well as Josh’s assistant and possible romantic partner-to-be, dispensing sharp, rapid fire putdowns and quips that play very well off Jason Bateman’s patented laconic style. And, while Jennifer Aniston has the thankless Scrooge role, she dispenses nastiness with a relish, including a hilarious putdown of a little girl in an airport lounge. And, Kate McKinnon fares best in one of the few roles that actually manages to take some effective jabs at the corporate structure, as she relentlessly skewers every clueless HR director in America.


McKinnon’s Mary Winetoss is an example of the type of satirically effective movie Office Christmas Party yearns to be. My guess is that the film was pitched as a cross between Office Space and The Hangover. But while it’s not difficult to match the latter film’s tackiness and crudity, the filmmakers generally stop short of really going after corporate bureaucracy. Instead, the movie never forgets that it’s a Christmas film and, despite the R-rated antics and language, it aims to deliver a wholesome holiday message.


Of course, it’s tough to pull off mixing raunchiness and wholesomeness in the same two hours of film, and, not surprisingly, the six screenwriting elves here can’t pull off that Christmas miracle. Instead, characters wind up reforming just like Scrooge and the Grinch, and, in order to resolve the company’s financial crisis, we get an overlong snowy car chase and ridiculously contrived deus ex machina source of financial salvation.


The best thing Office Christmas Party has going for it is the fact that holiday audiences, the type who pay to see movies as opposed to film critics who typically have their knives sharpened for a movie like this before they enter the screening room, tend to be favorably disposed at this time of year to films that make an effort to be entertaining. And Office Christmas Party and its talented cast do make an effort, sometimes too much of an effort to be sure, but a sincere, and reasonably often successful effort. So, we’ll reward it with a ho-ho-ho or two dozen rather than any “bah, humbugs.” 

In this scene, Jennifer Aniston takes out her frustrations on a little girl in an airport lounge.

Read other reviews of Office Christmas Party:


Office Christmas Party (2016) on IMDb