Office Christmas Party is a little bit like a Nickelback song, and I don’t mean that in the sense of Nickelback as the internet’s officially agreed-upon Worst Band In The World. (We all know it’s actually Train.) I mean that in the sense that it’s not so much painful to sit through or even all that bad, really, it’s just such a grasping combination of so many other things that it feels like it could’ve been written by a computer program. People don’t recoil because of discordance or incompetent playing, they recoil because it’s dehumanizing to be in the presence of such slickly processed mediocrity. It’s like looking in the mirror and seeing a collection of graphs staring back at you. No one wants to think of themselves as a math problem.
You hear a Nickelback song and think, “Yep, this sounds like a rock radio song.” You see Office Christmas Party and think, “Yep, this looks like a studio comedy.”
They’re not incompetently made, in fact they might be too competently made. Someone has catalogued things people liked and tried to make more of it, which makes sense, but now there’s an indefinable coldness to it, an ambiguous familiarity paired with the sense that you’re being tricked. Works like this live in the uncanny valley, so similar to so many different things all at once that it kind of creeps you out, like a sad mannequin that thinks it’s human.
This is probably making you think Office Christmas Party is worse than it is, and that’s unfair. I wish I could take this movie on a time machine with me to see what 13-year-old me would’ve thought of it, because that would be the only true test of its validity. It’s not a hard movie to sit through. The cast is solid and a lot of the joke writing is actually pretty sharp. And so you judge it in terms of opportunity costs. As a 13-year-old, what would I have been doing the weekend this movie came out? Probably watching a silly comedy starring SNL people. We didn’t have to ask “is this worth leaving the house for” because we were desperate to leave the house and movies were the easiest way. To a person in that situation, I could recommend Office Christmas Party almost wholeheartedly. It’s got some laughs, some drinking, some nudity. It’s occasionally mildly funny and sporadically unfunny, but it’s never painful or anti-funny (and a lot of bad comedies are — Dinner For Schmucks, The Hangover 3…).
You probably won’t have a bad time at Office Christmas Party. Conversely, there’s absolutely no reason to suggest it to someone who has other things they could be doing or other movies they could be seeing. It’s a reheated porridge of Tommy Boy, Old School, Wedding Crashers, and The Hangover. It has all the characters you’ve seen before. TJ Miller plays a lovable man-child who has inherited his father’s computer company (a la Farley’s character in Tommy Boy). Jennifer Aniston is his jealous, ice queen sister who hates fun and loves profits and wants to shut him down (think Charlize Theron in Prometheus plus David Spade plus the weasel laugh guy from Billy Madison). Jason Bateman is the Caring, Responsible Glib Guy Who Needs To Loosen Up who’s supposed to be our stand-in, and Olivia Munn is the Hot But Approachable Love Interest (Slash Computer Prodigy) Who Was Right There All Along.
There are various other familiar comedic characters thrown in, like the Indian guy with a fake girlfriend (a la Kip from Napoleon Dynamite), Asian guy with a baby fetish (Randall Park), Sexy Boob Girl (Jaimie Chung), Dorky Mom (Vanessa Bayer), and Kate McKinnon doing Kate McKinnon. Courtney B. Vance even shows up as the Important Client, only a slight variation on that classic from the ’80s and ’90s, the “important business meeting with the Japanese.” In a shocking twist, he takes a drug and loosens up!
On a joke-to-joke basis, Office Christmas Party isn’t that bad. The lines are reasonably clever, and these actors all have impeccable timing. In terms of story, it’s warmed over recycled garbage. Which isn’t totally disqualifying. A knock-knock joke doesn’t have to reinvent the format of a knock-knock joke to be a good knock-knock joke. But Office Christmas Party isn’t that good, it’s just good enough to keep you from leaving, like a charming emcee filling time while the guest of honor is stuck in traffic. The most interesting thing about it is that it feels like it’s desperate to be thinkpieced, fulfilling all of Katherine Heigl’s criticisms of Knocked Up, with the shrewish type A woman pitted against the lovably underachieving manchild in ways Knocked Up itself never did. (They even sort of look like Heigl and Rogen.) Not to mention the weird sexless Indian and perverted Asian stereotypes with an interlude into classic Russophobia thrown in, at an underworld bar where all the men are oafish thugs and all the women are high-class prostitute-y, complete with a guy in the corner playing the knife game. It’s almost charming that they gave such little regard to bad PR.
We’ve long since come to regard a gag reel played over the credits as the ultimate sign of a lame comedy, and Office Christmas Party has that, plus the funny photobooth stills cribbed from The Hangover. Only in OCP it feels even more like “the thing we know we have to do even though we’ve forgotten why” because the gag reel isn’t even really funny. A lot of it isn’t even actors breaking character or doing funny ad libs, it’s them just flubbing lines. LOL, she pronounced a word weird! The stills feel similarly vestigial, this distorted echo of something that was once meaningful. The Hangover‘s stills were a reveal. These stills are just stills, superfluous to the plot and not especially noteworthy. If you’d never seen The Hangover, it’d be like looking at the goofy epaulets on someone’s jacket and wondering if they once had a functional purpose. Maybe?
See it. Don’t. It matters not. Only the machines will know.