By Ethan Magee
Office Christmas Party (2016) was a surprise for me and I’m sure for plenty of others. What looked in trailers to be a lazily premised excuse to cash in on the lingering fallout from debauchery films like Project X (2011), the current fame of its stars, and the holiday season, turned out to be a very enjoyable and harmless comedy just a grade below the likes of 21 Jump Street (2012) and Horrible Bosses (2011). Even with some of those preconceptions still being present, I could not deny that I had fun in that theater.
OCP centers on Josh (Jason Bateman) and Clay (T.J. Miller) as two heads of a Chicago branch of a tech company. The two of them as well as the rest of their office are getting ready for the “non-denominational holiday mixer” as Mary from HR (Kate McKinnon) describes it, until Clay’s sister and corporate superior Carol (Jennifer Aniston) tells them that they need to partner with a lucrative client or else their branch will get shut down. So, in order to prove to their potential client that they have a people-friendly office environment, Clay, Josh, and his forced love interest Tracey (Olivia Munn) go for broke and try to throw the biggest rager of a Christmas party to impress the prospective partner.
Even though this explanation for the movie’s simple plot was kind of long winded, the film’s most glaring and immediate fault is actually how underwritten it is. This is proven quickly with the film opening on Bateman playing the meekish straight-man he always plays, finalizing his divorce with a lawyer. Some jokes are thrown back and forth and then the next thing you know he’s walking to his office and the movie gets going. If Bateman was the protagonist, then this would be a very weak character introduction. The movie thinks he is because he’s romantically available, but this is way more T.J. Miller’s movie. It’s another instance of the studio going with the safer bet. Bateman is charismatic and likeable and has held his own in plenty of big budget comedies, whereas I really only know T.J. Miller as the smarmy barkeep in Deadpool (2016). However, Miller just steals the show with his line delivery, physical humor, and well-fleshed out character while Bateman’s weak foil amounts to a stereotypical-as-all-hell romance subplot with Munn.
The various side characters that comprise the ensemble cast suffer from the same problems as Bateman’s character, or at least some of them do. The experienced players like Vanessa Bayer and Randall Park manage to stand out in their limited roles and they end up adding a lot to the movie’s humor. The younger actors do unfortunately fall into stereotypical roles, and it’s these characters that end up moving the plot forward more than the established actors. Nate, played by Karan Soni (also in Deadpool), is the stereotypical nerd who lies to his bullying coworkers about how he has a girlfriend and so must then hire a prostitute whose pimp is Jillian Bell playing the exact same role she did in 22 Jump Street (2014). While these kinds of characters do end up being necessary for the story, the better, more unpredictable comedic roles balance them out and save the movie from being completely predictable.
Ultimately, the movie draws its charm and its fun from one major source: the comedy (weird right?). The script doesn’t need to be nuanced and air tight when the film isn’t really trying to take itself seriously, and OCP does a legitimately great job of doing just that. The physical humor does not dominate the movie or feel cheap and helps break the monotony of more dramatic scenes. The wordplay and character humor, especially from T.J. Miller and Kate McKinnon, is really funny and is almost on par with Wet Hot American Summer (2001). Even the joke of the Christmas party itself doesn’t overstay its welcome and it’s cut to very tactfully, always giving us some new visual like a guy 3-D printing his junk and a Jesus in slow motion riding a horse through the office hallways in drunken glory. They do make a few too many “reference jokes” though, which is the easiest and therefore the worst kind of humor (“I’m going to Gone Girl you,” is one of the first of many lines like this). I think if I had to sum up this movie in a word, I would say that it’s solid. It’s an above average comedy but an average movie, with the dynamic and relationship between T.J. Miller and Jennifer Aniston the one thing giving the story its meat. I bet you didn’t expect to see this kind of recommendation on GoodBadTaste, but if you have the chance go see Office Christmas Party.