Nostalgia is a funny thing in the movies. When it's done right, movies whisk us back to some bygone romanticized era where we could all laugh, party and relive simpler times—think Hot Tub Time Machine’s depiction of the ’80s. When movie nostalgia goes wrong, it’s a trip back to someone else’s fantasy past, when white guys could be a—holes and always win, when women flashing their boobs was a punch line, and jokes about Asians, blacks and gays were just non-PC “fun” (think Anchorman 2).
Office Christmas Party is the rare movie that gets laughs, acting and, most of all, nostalgia right.
The entirety of Office Christmas Party is about nostalgia and recapturing a bygone era through the movie setup, the plot and, yes, even the casting decisions. The tried-and-true premise is reminiscent of any ensemble flick of the late ’70s through the ’90s that takes place in a workplace, college or high school. The Zenotech company is facing the shutdown of its Chicago branch by penny-pinching interim CEO, and founder’s daughter, Carol Vanstone (played by a less vampy version of Jennifer Aniston from Terrible Bosses).
Her disorganized but lovable brother, Clay Vanstone (played by Silicon Valley’s T.J. Miller), who manages the branch, along with recent divorcee everyman Josh Parker (Jason Bateman) and frustrated but brilliant engineer Tracy Hughes (Olivia Munn), vows to save everyone’s job by scoring a big account with executive Walter Davis (Courtney B. Vance). Against Carol’s wishes, Clay and Josh throw the biggest, wildest Christmas party in company history in hopes of showing Davis that Zenotech still cares about employees instead of just the bottom line.
Over the course of the movie, property is destroyed, there’s a dance number to DJ Kool’s “Let Me Clear My Throat,” family drama is resolved, car chases happen, and various characters find love and redemption. You’ve seen this all before, but rarely have you seen it done with such an overflow of warmth, comedy talent and laugh-out-loud dialogue.
Basking in the theme of nostalgia, Office Christmas Party is set up like an old weekend TV movie from NBC in the ’80s. Back then, to fill time slots on Sunday nights (which used to be dead network time), the network would slap a script together, fill it with actors from other popular sitcoms and give it a generic title. Is that Jackée from 227 playing a grumpy driving instructor in Crash Course (1988)? Whaaaaat? Is that Alex P. Keaton from Family Ties and Jo from Facts of Life playing camp counselors falling in love in Poison Ivy (1985)? It sure is! “Wait, it’s that guy from that show” becomes part of the fun of Office Christmas Party, too.
In addition to the aforementioned stars, Christmas Party features a cast seemingly made up of actors from every funny show on cable and the networks in the last three years. That also happens to make this the most diverse comedy out of Hollywood since Furious 7 (c'mon, those movies can’t be taken seriously anymore). There’s the Southeast Asian office nerd Nate trying to find himself (Karen Soni from Blunt Talk on Showtime); Fred from accounting, who’s just trying to find love (played by Randall Park of Fresh Off the Boat and Veep); undercover brother Joel (Sam Richardson from Veep); Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon as obsessive-compulsive human resources lady Mary; not to mention Rob Corddry, Jillian Bell and Andrew Leeds. Office Christmas Party is stocked with more comedy talent than a Second City reunion tour.
The other engaging element of Office Christmas Party is that the nostalgia is economic, not cultural. Office Christmas parties used to be a reward for a hard year, bonuses or not. It was a chance for folks to blow off steam, empty the open bar and say goodbye to the last fiscal quarter. For most Americans, that meant the CEO dressing up like Santa Claus and handing out joke gifts at old-school office parties. The point is, there was a time when your job cared about more than just the bottom line, and Office Christmas Party wants us to remember that time and take it to 2016, minus all the bigotry, misogyny and “class ceilings” that came along with it.
Office Christmas Party could easily have devolved into an old-style, anti-PC raunch romp where they rally against Kwanzaa and Hanukkah, longing for the days when white guys could do whatever they wanted. Fortunately, instead of a Mad Men office party, this was closer to a Die Hard Nakatomi Plaza party: raucous, diverse, and everybody of every color and gender gets to be funny, the hero and the butt of jokes.
All of the romantic plots in the movie (and there are several) involve Asian actors; the black folks run the gamut from DJ to security guard to executive; the classic nude-photocopy joke gets an update, thanks to an office 3D printer; and any movie that can deliver the deadpan line “I majored in Canadian television theory … with a concentration in Drake” and get a whole Atlanta prescreening theater to burst out laughing is clearly aiming for comedy that everybody can appreciate.
If you’re looking for a funny Christmas movie for adults that lets you reminisce about bringing back the good old days without reliving the bad old parts, go see Office Christmas Party. You’ll wish that you could spend your lasts days of 2016 working at Zenotech.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.