*** (out of five)
Office Christmas Party is about an office Christmas Party. It’s the Chicago branch, part of a larger corporation with headquarters in New York. The founder of the company is dead; his daughter Carol (Jennifer Aniston) is now the CEO while son (and younger brother) Clay (T.J. Miller from Silicon Valley) runs Chicago. She’s uptight and awful and not only wants to cut 40% of Clay’s staff, she wants to cancel the Christmas party! Clay is similar – very, very similar – to Miller’s character on Silicon Valley, so that’s not going to happen. Shenanigans ensue.
That’s all you really need to know about Office Christmas Party, a big Hollywood Studio comedy Christmas offering, at least on a plot level; indeed, the plot is about as unimportant as plots get. What’s important is that Aniston and Jason Bateman, playing Clay’s much more conscientious right-hand man, are simply Big Names designed to attract a budget and an audience, while the film’s real agenda is to allow a huge swathe of television second-stringers and up-and-comers to audition for Big Screen Comedy Stardom: steal your scene, the film seems to be chanting, and we’ll give you your own (smaller) movie!
Thus we not only have Miller (who single-handedly provides about seventy percent of the film’s energy), but the strange and wonderful Kate McKinnon from Saturday Night Live (she will have her own movies, unless her comedy is simply too esoteric for a mainstream audience or Hollywood’s conception of one); Randall Park (Fresh Off The Boat), Rob Corddry (Children’s Hospital), Olivia Munn (Attack of the Show!), Matt Walsh (Veep), Karan Soni (Blunt Talk), Oliver Cooper (Red Oaks), Fortune Feimster (The Mindy Project) and Vanessa Bayer (also Saturday Night Live)… among many others. It’s sink-or-swim, thrive or perish, with the constraints of the uneven script and the edit these combatants’ fiendishly random gladiatorial weapons. Thus Corddry – a terrific comedian – is hamstrung by an underwritten and unlikeable character, while Bayer and Park get to shine, sharing, as they do, one of the film’s simplest but funniest scenes.
Stupid Hollywood formula ruins the last act, but until then it’s an amiable ride, resting squarely on Miller’s ample shoulders. He’s a unique comic entity, with a fair chunk of Belushi’s wild anti-authoritarianism tempered by an almost Bateman-level sweetness. It’s a winning combo and makes Office Christmas Party bearable and occasionally mood-enhancing.