You sit through a lot of middling comedies in this racket, and I find it more interesting to read the audience than the film a lot of the time. Earlier this year The Boss was a good example of when a failure to establish character and grab a couple of big laughs early on leads to a quick death, and you could hear how no one felt up for laughing at some great stuff that came later, because they knew the rest of the room was staying quiet. Office Christmas Party is far better than that, but there came a point, about 40 minutes in, when the room decided: nah, no sale.
And yet all the ingredients are there: it’s an original property with built-in sequel potential, a cast full of all those people you like off the TV, and a set-up designed for impropriety, awkwardness and slapstick. It makes good use of all these, and does a deft job of giving enough screen time to a pretty big, and deserving, cast. Starting well with a Jason Bateman we’ve seen a few hundred times before – nice guy with something missing in his life – it then throws up some treats. TJ Miller doing his usual thing: bit of a dick, but this time with a heart thrown in; Kate McKinnon as the compliance-obsessed HR rep; a great subplot in which Karan Soni needs a made-up girlfriend to bring along to the party.
What could go wrong? I don’t know; nothing much seemed to. McKinnon wins it by virtue of bossing the old “uptight woman goes crazy” arc, needing so little to work with in order to make a part brilliant it’s like a conjuring trick. Keep in mind her rise to prominence when you think back on 2016 and it might not all seem so bad. Bateman anchors it, with Miller bouncing off him all over the place, and Olivia Munn elevates her role way beyond love interest.
Maybe, just maybe, it’s down to Jennifer Aniston’s Carol. It’s the part’s fault rather than hers, but her standard-issue Queen Bitch role, the CEO wanting to shut the party down, feels like it’s from another era. Take away everyone’s bonuses and perks (in a cool, innovative tech company), without warning, to cut costs? Does even the most hard-nosed boss think that’s likely to prove productive? Seeing her alongside Miller and McKinnon is a tonic, because she can joust and improvise with the best of them, but she deserves better than what the script serves up for her. You could also question why, she and Bateman being the same age, they played a couple in 2010 romcom The Switch, and now she’s the older authority figure while they cast Munn (eleven years younger) as the girl he flirts with. Expect to see Aniston playing his mother in ten years or so.
Certainly the fake girlfriend subplot could’ve been played up more, and Soni’s Nate could’ve been sent way further down that rabbit hole than he is. But I’m not sure any of this explains why the laughter died down. I was mainly still enjoying it, and there were pockets of chuckling dotted around me, but it wasn’t riding a steady wave of laughs anymore and everyone knew it.
I’ve been in audiences where no one laughed, and audiences where everyone laughed. But this was the first one where everyone laughed up until a certain point, and then stopped. If I could put my finger on exactly what that point was, I’d bottle the secret of not making people laugh and make a million. As it is, I’ll just have to settle for not making people laugh and not getting paid for it.