I've been to exactly one office Christmas party in my life. It was in San Francisco during the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s, when the Internet held infinite promise and banks were hosing down new media companies with cash. Everyone was young and restless, designer drugs were cheap and plentiful, and money wasn't really money at all. We partied like it was 1999, because it was 1999.
I remember thinking, "This party would be an excellent premise for a movie." (That's about all I remember.) Twenty years later, that movie has finally rolled around. Office Christmas Party, this season's requisite hard-R ensemble comedy, chronicles the adventures of a midsize tech company with an oversize party budget and nothing to lose.
The place is Chicago, the company is Zenotek, and the boss is Clay Vanstone, played by the amiable T.J. Miller as a slack bro with good intentions. Jennifer Aniston is Clay's sister, Carol, the uptight CEO of the family company who wants to shut down Clay's branch. In a last-ditch effort to rally morale and woo an important client, Clay and his tech officer Josh (Jason Bateman) pour all of Zenotek's remaining money into the office party. Kate McKinnon brings her weird comic rhythms as Mary, Zenotek's prim HR director in charge of the “non-denominational holiday mixer.” Olivia Munn is the hottie hacker whose ideas just might save Zenotek after all.
That's all you need to know for a comedy like this, and the movie clearly wants to bring back the simple, anarchic fun of old National Lampoon movies. After a slow-burn hour of setup, the party sequence kicks in and delivers the story's best laughs. The party-off-the-rails template hasn't really changed from Animal House to The Hangover; the jokes have just gotten dirtier. Zenotek's bleary debauchery includes what I believe is cinema's first 3-D-printed dick joke.
It's all sex, drugs, and EDM after that, and most of the individual scenes land well enough to keep the momentum going. One office-romance subplot goes sideways when the guy reveals his weird fetish too soon. (“Save that shit for the fourth date, like a regular person!”) Everything clicks up a notch when cocaine gets accidentally dumped into the snow machine. And Jason Bateman proves once again that he is the greatest straight man in comedy.
Office Christmas Party moves in fits and starts; the plot is wonkier than it needs to be and stalls out completely in the third act. When your climactic moment involves the entire cast standing around looking at their phones, your script needs another draft. (Or maybe it's just a sign of the times—could be that.)
But like so many comedies of this sort, the film is largely redeemed by the cast. Rob Corddry is very funny as Chicago's worst customer-service executive, and SNL's Vanessa Bayer elevates every scene she's in. There's a spirit of fun and generosity throughout. You get the feeling that everybody had a good time making this movie. That always shines through—think Bridesmaids, or the entire career output of Seth Rogen. And be sure to stick around for the gag reel during the end credits. You can tell a lot about a movie by its gag reel.