This review is also up at Channel 24
What it's about
A slacker manager of the local office of a major corporation is told by his cold-hearted sister and boss that unless he pulls in an unreasonable amount of money by the end of the quarter, she will have no choice but to fire him and close down the branch. And, effective immediately, the office Christmas party is canceled. In a last ditch effort to save the branch, he enlists the help of his best friends and number two at the company to throw the biggest Christmas party ever in an effort to boost his employee's morale and maybe, just maybe, sign up a huge client who would singehandedly bring in enough money to save the branch.
What we thought
Jennifer Aniston has long ago proven to be the kiss of death for most major Hollywood comedies – and she certainly doesn't buck the trend here. It's not so much that she's a terrible actress (though I've yet to be convinced that she's at all great) or that she's a particularly awful comedic actress (though only one or two roles would convincingly refute that she probably is) but that she has a habit of choosing some truly awful, uninspired and horribly unfunny comedies with almost alarming precision. When We're the Millers is probably the best things she has starred in in years, you know you're in trouble.
It's especially annoying because not only is she surrounded by a number of very talented comic actors but the film actually starts off with a certain amount of promise. The opening few minutes of the film basically just follow Jason Bateman doing the whole trying-to-hard-to-be-nice thing that he mastered in Arrested Development and T.J. Miller playing a slightly dumber version of his hilarious character in Silicon Valley. It's not wildly funny or anything but it's light and snappy and bodes well for what is to come.
Sadly, the minute that Jennifer Aniston walks in, dragging the plot behind her kicking and screaming, things go very bad very, very fast. Aniston herself is stuck with a role that is almost irredeemably unlikable but is made even worse when the film utterly unconvincingly tries to redeem her in its final act. She's also hopelessly unfunny, which makes things rather worse still, but it probably isn't entirely her fault.
At the heart of it, the film clearly suffers from two major problems and, though Aniston may perhaps suffer the worst from it, the rest of the cast don't get off much better.
Fault the first: Office Christmas Party suffers from Project X syndrome - though fortunately nowhere near as badly – where there seems to be the idea that depicting a really raucous, unhinged party on screen is a perfectly acceptable replacement for writing genuine jokes. It also works off the assumption that watching other people have a great time on screen is exactly the same thing as having fun yourself. It clearly isn't, as anyone who has ever been the only sober person in a room full of drunks can quite convincingly attest. The endless, obvious and crude party scenes in the film aren't just no fun; they aren't just not funny but they are, in a way, quite seriously depressing.
Tied into the first problem, the second horrible failing of the film is that the film feels improvised in the worst way. Improvisation can work brilliantly in comedy – just look at Curb Your Enthusiasm – but it's an extremely tough nut to crack and is usually best left to the few people who truly excel at it and the even fewer directors and writers who know what to do with it. As a general rule, great comedy comes from a mixture of great comic writing and tight, precise direction; in musical terms, more symphonic classical than freestyle jazz.
Sadly, none of that discipline is anywhere to be found here. The film has many fine comedic actors but improv is clearly not most of their greatest strengths, which means that without the right material and the right direction, they are left to flounder all over the place for an extremely long two-hours. The film was written over various stages by a whopping six people and yet the film barely has six identifiable crafted jokes, let alone six genuinely funny ones – none of which are exactly helped along by the film's two directors, Josh Gordon and Will Speck, who struggle in vain to bring any of the silly hilarity of their breakout film, Blades of Glory, to bear on a film that may have plenty of the former but none of the latter.
This is one Office Christmas party you can quite safely skip.