As sad as it may be, if one movie from 2016 could serve as a (non-polemical) time capsule for what it was like to live in this year, that movie might be “Office Christmas Party.” From top to bottom, the film is chock full of time-specific references to technology: iCal, Uber, 3D printing, frustrating Wi-Fi. Imagine watching this in 30 years with your kids. They are likely going to ask a lot of questions about what certain terms mean.
But beyond the minutiae, very little about “Office Christmas Party” feels specifically tied to the year. Unlike television’s “The Office,” whose episodic structure dictated it ignore the ravages of time, cinema’s unique capability to provide a snapshot of a particular cultural moment has led to some invaluable representations of corporate America. Particularly in the wake of the 2008 recession, movies from “Up in the Air” to “The Company Men” to “The Internship” serve as documentation to the hopes and anxieties of the average blue-collar worker in their time.
The premise of the film seems to provide a great launchpad into some topical territory. Jennifer Aniston’s Carol Vanstone, a Miranda Priestly impersonation spiked with a Grinch attitude, rolls into the Chicago branch of her family business to announce a 40% reduction in employees and total cancellation of Christmas bonuses. There’s an initial wave of panic, anger and frustration from the managers in the office, especially from Carol’s entitled brother, branch manager Clay (T.J. Miller). But once that subsides, there’s no 2016-specific fuel to their actions, no sense of worry that the climate is unforgiving. “Office Christmas Party” could have been written at just about any time in the last 40 years and simply spruced up with current cultural products.
If the fact that I am fixating on the thematic relevance of “Office Christmas Party” bothers you – “Hey, man, this is a comedy! Talk about the laughs, you pretentious jerk,” some of you might be thinking – that’s only because my mind drifted there in the absence of belly laughs. Kate McKinnon’s brilliant inhabitation of an ultra-politically correct HR manager notwithstanding, the film is a smattering of mild chuckles and all-out misses as Clay throws together an impromptu holiday bash in a last-ditch effort to win a business client that could save the branch.
Screenwriters Justin Malen, Laura Solon and Dan Mazer pack the story full of stock characters and plot tangents. This contributes to the grandiosity of “Office Christmas Party,” yet the byproduct is that the film feels wildly impersonal. Heck, Jason Bateman might have even been playing his same character from “Horrible Bosses,” and I would not have noticed. Wait, maybe I didn’t want to type that – the last thing we need is for studio comedies to become expanded cinematic universes. C+ /