Tis the season to be jolly. Few institutions insist upon this more than Hollywood, which traditionally includes among its December releases a number of films designed to induce seasonal merriment. Yet viewers of a new comedy, Office Christmas Party, may find themselves in a mood more sombre than cheery. Not so much because of the film’s manifest flaws (including jokes that are only sporadically funny, with some resembling bad crackers in their failure to detonate), but because of what, beneath its tinselly visuals and raucous soundtrack, the film tells us about the condition of the United States this Christmas.
Many reviewers of Office Christmas Party have already pointed out the excesses of its plotting. What could have been a modest vehicle streamlined for the season is bedecked with multiple, clashing genre accessories: at times we’re watching Bill Murray’s Scrooged (1988), in other moments an episode of the Fast and Furious franchise.
But essentially, the film’s premise comes down to this: the Chicago branch of internet company Zenotek is failing, and Carol (Jennifer Aniston), corporate CEO and Scrooge-like sister of local manager Clay (TJ Miller), arrives in the snowy city to downsize or even close it. In desperation, the hippy-ish Clay decides to throw an office Christmas party of sufficient lavishness to win over a wealthy client (Courtney B Vance). Most of the film’s running time is taken up by the riotous party itself. But as the guests descend into intoxication, the corporate carnival that ensues is likely to sober the attentive viewer by revealing glimpses of a badly damaged America.
Work and play
You would not assume that a silly festive comedy such as Office Christmas Party and a Russian scholar of Dostoevsky and Rabelais would have much in common. But Mikael Bakhkin’s research on the theory of carnival, especially as elaborated in the monumental Rabelais and His World (1965), offers a fruitful resource by which to assess the politics of fun in Office Christmas Party.
Carnival, at its epitome in the medieval Feast of Fools celebration, holds out the prospect of a “utopian realm of community, freedom, equality, and abundance”, according to Bakhtin. Hierarchy is inverted, with the high made low; stuffy decorums are violated by irreverent laughter. What Bakhtin calls “the lower-bodily stratum” liberates the participant in carnival from rigid mental disciplines and initiates a radical reimagining of the world. And, certainly, the lower-bodily stratum is on abundant display in Office Christmas Party: pelvises gyrate in frequent dance sequences, while, more daringly, penises appear and naked buttocks wait their turn to be lowered onto the photocopier.
Yet we should be cautious about endowing these particular bodily excesses with carnival’s most subversive potential. Instead we find on display throughout the film the limited form of liberation that Bakhtin criticises as “a mere holiday mood”. Under Clay’s management style, in fact, every day at Chicago’s Zenotek office resembles a holiday. The film aims to convince us that, unlike in Carol’s austere corporate fiefdom, daily work here has the character of play (with evidence extending from a relaxed dress code through to a regular delivery of doughnuts).
Yet the grim corollary of this is that play is always work. Ultimately, the film cannot imagine an alternative to the rule of hard-lined, business-driven corporate mentality (however disguised that regime might be by executives wearing Christmas jumpers or fellating a novelty eggnog dispenser).
The assembled family is crucial to the iconography of the American Christmas. Think, for example, of James Stewart’s tearful reunion with his wife and children at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), or of benevolent generations gathered together in illustrations painted by Norman Rockwell for the Saturday Evening Post. Or even recall the ending of The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), in which Kermit and Miss Piggy as the Cratchits preside over a table groaning with both food and children.
But in Office Christmas Party, families are largely absent (a deficit not satisfyingly redressed by Clay’s attempts to build a sense of “family” into life working for his company). The film begins, unseasonably, with one character’s divorce. The few children present are peripheral but in disadvantaged situations: a baby rented for the party’s Bethlehem manger, for example, or a child who suffers Carol’s wrath for stealing her cinnabon. Where a child’s discourse with its mother is heard, it proves disturbingly to be a lovelorn worker’s expression of a “mommy fetish”. The prevailing sense is more of atomisation than Christmassy connection.
In letting slip the American experience now of economic and social precariousness, Office Christmas Party is, in the end, surprisingly lacking in festive cheer. And as a final reason not to be jolly, we might reflect that the US Christmas we see here on-screen is the last before the coming of President Trump, a potential Bad Santa if ever there was one.