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Film Spotlight: Office Christmas Party

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In Office Christmas Party, out Friday in wide release, the Chicago branch of a tech company takes desperate measures to win a lucrative contract and save the branch from closure: They host a Christmas rager to end all Christmas ragers. There's no cleverness in the title here, nor (notably) is there anxiety about appeasing a secular/non-Christian fan base; it's merely an exhaustive description of the film's plot.

Here's the fine print: Branch manager Clay Matthews (T.J. Miller) is the son of the company's founder. He views the annual Christmas Party with the same sacramental reverence that Catholic bishops tend to view Easter Vigil, and even though his steely sister, the CEO (Jennifer Aniston) has expressly forbidden a holiday shebang, the courting of a potential client is an excuse for the nostalgically hard-partying Clay. It's a chance to invigorate his office, to give his beleaguered employees something to smile about for the holidays. If that means destroying/debauching company property, well, that's just the cost of doing business.

The movie turns out to be a pretty standard modern comedy, featuring an enormous ensemble cast that includes every current TV comedy star you've heard of: SNL's Kate McKinnon and Vanessa Bayer; Silicon Valley's Miller, Veep's Sam Richardson and Randall Park. Jason Bateman and Jennifer Aniston, stars of the Horrible Bosses franchise, feel a generation removed from these upstarts. Olivia Munn, Karan Soni, Jillian Bell and Rob Corddry (another blast from the past) all star or co-star as well, and the screen can sometimes feel overcrowded with characters, with big personalities serving as minor functionaries, making the most of minimal screen time.

The tone is nonetheless convivial and relaxed; Miller, an unlikely boss, serves as spirit animal. Under his leadership, the cast seems to have internalized certain improv team mantras: put the team first, yes and, and so on. You never get the sense of competing comedic egos, or fear the "too many cooks in the kitchen" predicament that ransacked, for instance, the Ghostbusters reboot. Everyone seems to know their role and to bask in it: McKinnon, naturally, plays the farting HR wackjob, donned in gay omni-denominational holiday apparel; Bateman, as ever, is the straight man; Aniston's the cold and sexy executive; Bayer's all smiles; Jillian Bell's a fast-talking pimpess; Corddry's an angry middle manager; Karan Soni, (the taxi driver in Deadpool) is once again a nerd with outsized romantic ambitions.

It's not a bad premise, as far as one-note comedies go; and it creates both the narrative conditions and physical space for hilarity to ensue. The particulars of the story are much less important than the over-the-top antics, all of which are too preposterous to be believed and some of which just do not work. But there are a handful of incredible visual gags and riffs, many of which are courtesy of Miller. "How fast do you think you'd have to go to make that jump?" Miller asks Bateman in an early scene, gesturing to a rising Chicago bridge. "Do you think Vin could do it? Vin Diesel?"

Local viewers can also delight in the movie's regional connections. Both Vanessa Bayer and co-director Will Speck (who, along with partner Josh Gordon, directed Blades of Glory and The Switch) hail from

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