The epic party is an event that is also a fantasy. It’s a mainstay of Hollywood stories—from Cinderella to Sisters to Stranger Things, from most of the teen movies of the ’80s to many of the family sitcoms of the ’90s—in part because parties are fun, but also because parties, when they’re especially Epic, promise a kind of exceptionalism. Getting blackout drunk? Confessing your feelings to your crush? Table-dancing, lampshade-wearing, Benes-ing? Do whatever you want! the epic party offers. It won’t count! the epic party insists. The epic party is international waters, basically, only the “waters,” in this case, consist of tequila.
Now, with Office Christmas Party, the Epic Party fantasy has been taken to its logical—and inevitable—conclusion: Here is a movie that doesn’t merely involve such an event, but that fully revolves around it. The premise is this: Clay Vanstone (T.J. Miller), along with his friend and second-in-command, Josh Parker (Jason Bateman), run a branch of ZenoTek, a company that manufactures servers and other pieces of internet hardware. Things aren’t going well at the company’s Chicago branch—at least, not according to Carol (Jennifer Aniston), Clay’s sister and ZenoTek’s CEO, who is cold and tough and looking for ways to spite her caring-but-also-carefree brother. Carol will shutter the branch—and cut the jobs of the hundreds of people who work for it—unless Clay can get a big contract with a potential client, Walter Davis (Courtney B. Vance). The only way to win Walter’s business, it turns out? To show him the time of his life. Enter ZenoTek’s “bitch-ass Christmas party.”
Soon, the event that was initially meant to be a stodgy, mid-day, corporate affair—“non-alcoholic mimosas” included—becomes an Epic Party in the manner of legend and lore. The money that might have gone to holiday bonuses for ZenoTek’s employees has now, in the name of Walter-wooing, gone into the procuring of an ice luge and a photo booth and a slip-n-slide and a fake-snow-blowing machine and a replica of the Game of Thrones throne and, to ensure that these products are maximally enjoyed, water coolers full of vodka. Someone brings Jimmy Butler. Someone else brings some reindeer. Someone else invites, through some unnamed app, “all of Chicago.” Things quickly, in the proud tradition of the Epic Party, get out of hand: Soon, people aren’t just drinking and dancing and shedding their clothes and their inhibitions; they’re also sledding down stairways and setting fire to office furniture and throwing large pieces of office equipment out of the windows of ZenoTek’s downtown high-rise.
The assorted antics are roughly familiar: Think 30 Rock’s Ludacristmas and Parks and Recreation’s End of the World Party and Silicon Valley’s Bachmanity Insanity and The Office’s Moroccan Christmas, only with way more people ending up in the ER. (Vance’s character, in particular—the man all the fuss is being made for—comes in for some particularly rough treatment.) Cue, also, the Farrelly-esque jokes about the party’s phallic ice luge (the liquid sent down its shoot? eggnog). Cue ZenoTek’s overzealous HR manager (Kate McKinnon) saying, “I’m so sorry—I hate tension, and I farted.” Cue drunken revelers photocopying various body parts on the office copier—and, then, cue the guy copying a single body part on the office’s 3-D printer.
It’s not that Office Christmas Party isn’t funny: There are lots of great moments in it, from the subtle satires (DISCLAIMER: COFFEE HOT, reads a sign at a pre-Epic version of the party) to the clever lines (“I’m gonna Gone Girl you so hard,” a worker (Vanessa Bayer) seethes to her cheating husband) to the many pleasures of vicarious party-going (Josh and his colleague shimmying, awkwardly and delightfully, in snowmen-style sumo suits). And there is something, in the end, almost soothing about the predictability of the film’s plot points. (Think the ZenoTek coder who, after lying to his colleagues about having a model girlfriend, will hire a prostitute to fill the role? Think she might bring some cocaine to the party? Think there might be a wacky mishap involving the cocaine and the party’s fake-snow-blasting machine? You are correct.)
The problem, though, is that Office Christmas Party isn’t content with simply throwing a party: It insists instead, in the manner of Hollywood tradition, on throwing an Epic Party, with all the repercussional latitude that such an event will tend to involve. It is attempting, in its way, to make an argument about the oppressive nature of rules, whether they concern corporatism or “P.C. culture”; it does that mostly by mocking the people who try to enforce those rules.
The movie makes fun of Mary, McKinnon’s HR maven, who initially insists that the party in question be a “non-denominational holiday mixer” and who takes it upon herself to post signs warning office workers that they should PARTY LIKE THERE IS TOMORROW. It features an office worker, Jeremy (Rob Corddry), announcing that “if I wanna dick-tap Alan, I’m gonna dick-tap Alan!” It features another, Tracy (Olivia Munn), proving her worthiness as the film’s cool-girl romantic lead by mentioning that she skipped ZenoTek’s “sexual harassment seminar.” Office Christmas Party suggests that a good deal of life’s problems might be solved if people would stop being so uptight about everything and just let loose. It is not titled, after all, Office Holiday Party.
But then, just as the movie is having its laughs at the expense of rules/cultural inclusivity/soulless corporatism, it finds Mary extolling the solid engineering of her minivan, declaring, “It’s a Kia! It’s what God would drive.” It shows partygoers making decisions that they will surely come to regret. Its camera surveys the aftermath of the party—broken windows; destroyed furniture; dirtied, hungover bodies flung over the wreckage and eerie in their sleep—and suggests that Mary, in her reminder to “PARTY LIKE THERE IS TOMORROW,” might have had a point.
So Office Christmas Party is, in the end, extremely ambivalent about the party its story revolves around. As that event begins, a married couple shows up with their young son: They couldn’t get a sitter, they explain, apologetically. They send the kid off, with an iPad to keep him busy, to an empty office (and they do it quickly, the better to rid themselves of their burden, they announce, “before the edibles kick in”). At the end of the movie, we see the kid once again, wandering alone around the war-zone-like scene of the post-party ZenoTek, the dead iPad at his side, apparently looking for the parents who have forgotten him in the name of consequence-free fun. Lol?
Office Christmas Party centers around characters who are, generally, old enough to question the promise of the epic party itself: people who know that, whatever the party might have to say about it, consequences have a way of showing up for the fun, too. That might help to explain why the movie manages, so often, to be funny but fails, so often, to be fully fun. There’s a certain sadness lurking behind all the insistent whimsy. Office Christmas Party belies, in the end, its own premise: It recognizes, reluctantly, that there is a distinction between “escapism” and true “escape.” It recognizes, even more reluctantly, that actions will have their reactions, whether they’re done while the doer is stone-cold sober or drunk on office-water-cooler vodka. It has its laughs, and its assorted delights; it also knows, though, that parties—even, and especially, the epic ones—will, sooner or later, have to end.