In the shambling ensemble comedy Office Christmas Party, Kate McKinnon plays the uptight Human Resources person at an unruly tech outfit, a job about as thankless as hall monitor in Rock 'n' Roll High School. Every boozy party movie needs its requisite prude, but McKinnon keeps adding new layers of eccentricity, from a data-driven approach to cheese platter arrangement to secret perversions that dangle like loose threads from her interdenominational holiday sweater. And that doesn't account for the wonderfully peculiar little stares and gestures that have become McKinnon's stock-in-trade. She has a way of drawing focus no matter how crowded the frame.
2016 has been the year of McKinnon, but it's also been a lesson in relying too much on comic performers to carry the load. McKinnon's dexterity and range has turned Saturday Night Live into The Kate McKinnon Show all season, and she thrived in the improvisational looseness of Ghostbusters, which too often asked its actors to riff listlessly against expensive special effects. Office Christmas Party is yet another example of a comedy that asks too much of McKinnon and its cast to make up for serious lapses in the screenplay. The actors are reduced to independent contractors, brought in to patch up subplots that don't add up to a cohesive whole. You admire their individual talent while the movie around them sags and lurches.
Credited to three screenwriters and three story writers, Office Christmas Party has the type of plot that seems constructed from a game of telephone over a static-filled line. Sales figures are down at the Chicago branch of Zenotek Data Storage Systems, so Carol (Jennifer Aniston), the ruthlessly hard-edged CEO, announces a cancellation of end-of-the-year bonuses and the annual Christmas party, and threatens a devastating 40% staff cut for the new year. This leaves the brain trust at Zenotek scrambling to save the company, including newly divorced CTO Josh (Jason Bateman), forward-thinking tech wizard Tracey (Olivia Munn), and branch chief Clay (T.J. Miller), who happens to be Carol's screw-up younger brother. Zenotek was bequeathed to Carol and Clay by their late father, and sibling rivalry accounts for the possible branch closing as much as flat numbers.
The only chance for survival is a home-run pitch to Walter (Courtney B. Vance), a client whose business would bring millions of dollars into the company. So Clay, Josh, and Tracey decide to woo him by defying Carol's orders and throwing an extravagant Christmas bacchanal at the office, complete with live reindeer, an "eggnog luge," and an appearance by Chicago Bulls all-star Jimmy Butler. This opens up scattered intrigue among officemates, including a single mom (Vanessa Bayer) wooed by a co-worker (Randall Park) with a baby fetish and a mob-connected escort (Abbey Lee) serving as a tech-geek's fake girlfriend for the night. That the latter subplot eats up much of the final third of the movie says everything about the catch-at-catch-can spirit of the enterprise.
Directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck, who previously teamed Bateman and Aniston for the unfortunate sperm mix-up comedy The Switch, give themselves over to the chaos when they should be managing it. Skilled improvisers like McKinnon and T.J. Miller thrive in the mayhem, but other actors are hung out to dry, especially Aniston, who's made to embody every terrible stereotype about women in charge while Miller gets to play the fun boss that everyone loves. Bateman and Munn nurse a pleasant romantic chemistry together, but they're mostly stuck with the burden of moving the story along and carrying its lone theme about the virtues of risk-taking.
Once the party rages out of control, however, the cast commits to the free-for-all and the luckiest among them walk away with some nice additions to their clip reel. As a rage-monster of a pimp, Jillian Bell brings the same erratic fury that made her a stand-out in 22 Jump Street while Fortune Feimster, in her one scene as an Uber driver who can't stop pestering Carol, riffs some of the funniest material in the movie. That the performances and story threads in Office Christmas Party could be so easily isolated and ranked in preferential order speaks to how little attention is given to how everyone works together. Maybe this branch should be closed, after all.