Patrick Brice and Sam Bain cross tonal wires to ill effect in this bland, unoriginal comic thriller.
There is a moment about 25 minutes or so into Corporate Animals when the self-involved, greedy Incredible Edibles CEO Lucy (Demi Moore), deep in faux-new age attitude, harangues their outdoor adventure team building guide Brandon (Ed Helms) into taking her employees to an advanced climbing course. It’s a turning point in the action of the film, the moment when the “real” plot kicks in. It also proves a turning point in the film itself. However, unlike the doomed Edibles workers, the film chooses the path of least resistance and we all suffer for it.
Animals opens with an uncomfortable scene for anyone familiar with corporate office work. Lucy has taken her small band of mismatched employees — apparent favorite employee/punching bag Jess (Jessica Williams), former favorite Freddie (Karan Soni) and overly compliant intern Aidan (Calum Worthy) amongst them — to a day of teamwork and hiking. Each employee senses that things are not quite right at Edibles, but no one quite grasps how bad things have gotten. However, when a cave-in strands them deep beneath the Earth, they rapidly fall apart, truths are revealed, and things get awfully desperate awfully quickly.
The movie kind of works when everyone is above ground. Its sly in its commentary on both the inherent silliness of outdoor adventure team exercises, the callowness and arrogance of corporate leaders, and the pettiness of inner-company relations. The moment the group descends though, Corporate Animals becomes blunt and obvious, abandoning any sense of complexity to go straight for easy laughs – few of which it’s able to land.
The film imagines itself a pitch-black comedy that literalizes the current kill-or-be-killed corporate environment. The first problem with that is, almost immediately, Sam Bain’s script has the staff of Incredible Edibles reveal themselves to be generally decent people. Jess and Freddie are competing with the same promotion but are only really doing it because Lucy manipulated them into it. Otherwise, everyone else seems generally fine with where they are in the corporate hierarchy. The meanest they get to each other is some passive-aggressive sniping and dumping on the intern. Even as it becomes clear that they may need to contemplate a horrible new source of food, they debate it fairly respectfully and then take a vote where majority rules. For “animals,” they are all remarkably well-behaved.
The one exception is Lucy herself. She is the kind of person who believes the upside of feminism is it means women get to sexually harass their subordinates too. And lest you miss that point, don’t worry, the script makes her say it. As played by Moore, Lucy wraps her predatory nature in vague spiritual platitudes and seemingly clueless proclamations of her native American roots. Moore is honestly very good at it, but she is dragging some pretty weak material across the finish line.
In fact, all the players are good but ill-served by their dialogue. Only Helms puts any zing into the script by, ironically, going low energy with Brandon. His barely concealed disinterest in helping the employees work better as a team is one of the better recurring subtle jokes. He gets exactly the kind of monster Lucy is, he just doesn’t care as long as the check clears.
Corporate Animals becomes blunt and obvious, abandoning any sense of complexity to go straight for easy laughs – few of which it’s able to land.
Patrick Brice’s (Creep, The Overnight) direction is fairly bland as well. Even with most of Corporate Animals unfolding in a small underground cavern, he never really gives us a feel for the space. It’s a surprisingly un-claustrophobic movie, despite the cast spending most of the time buried alive.
Even when the movie does take ‘risks’, so to speak, Brice never commits to them enough to matter. At one point, a character experiences a drug trip that merges live-action and rotoscoped animation – an interesting enough idea, but it doesn’t actually deepen our understanding of the characters, nor is it unique enough to justify its presence as art for art’s sake. At another, a character begins to experience auditory hallucinations in the form of Britney Spears cheering him on – a device that disappears for 45 minutes and only returns for one more gag.
In the end, that’s the story of Corporate Animals – a lack of commitment. It wants to be a dark scathing look at our economic climate with jokes, but it blinks. Instead, it settles for bland, warmed-over commentary that barely elicits a chuckle.
Corporate Animals is currently available on Digital and On Demand.