Now that the duds that were Bad Santa 2 and Almost Christmas have tried but failed to be this year’s top Christmas movie offering, Office Christmas Party aims to claim the top prize as its star-studded cast of comedy pros, including Justin Bateman and Jennifer Aniston, and their endless well of outrageous jokes are released into theaters this week.
The film follows a group of office workers as their innocent holiday gathering immediately spirals out of control in true raunchy comedy fashion. Most will consider Office Christmas Party a fun romp, but it will never take the place of Mixed Nuts, the premier comedy tale of a Christmas in the workplace that quickly goes awry.
Set in sunny Los Angeles on Christmas Eve, Mixed Nuts centers on Philip (Steve Martin), the founder of Lifesavers, a suicide hotline he operates along with the prim and proper Mrs. Munchnik (Madeleine Kahn) and the lovely but shy Catherine (Rita Wilson). It seems there’s very little to celebrate this year as Philip has just received word that their funds have dried up and his business will soon go under. Making matters worse is the fact that Philip has just been dumped by his fiancee Susan (Joely Fisher) at the same time that Catherine’s pregnant, high-strung friend Gracie (Juliette Lewis) has showed up after splitting with her ex-con husband Felix (Anthony LaPaglia). Meanwhile, downstairs neighbor Louie (Adam Sandler) has eyes for Catherine, and a melancholic trans woman named Chris (Liev Schreiber) appears seeking in-person counseling, all while a serial killer known as “the seaside strangler” is terrorizing the city.
Combining elements of both dark comedy and farce is a feat many filmmakers dare not attempt for the simple reason that it’s almost impossible to pull off. However, Nora Ephron was never a filmmaker that seemed easily deterred by anything, and as a result she injects plenty of both types of tones into the entirety of Mixed Nuts. Scenes featuring characters running around screaming are wonderfully juxtaposed with moments of black humor. The entire sequence of trying get Mrs. Munchnik out of a stuck elevator by Philip, who intends to pull her out through the small hatch above, reaches great levels of hilarity when Gracie jumpstarts the elevator from the ground floor in a bid to get away from the lovestruck Felix, who proceeds to race his pregnant wife all to the way to the top as the other two pray they aren’t crushed to death.
Dark laughs, meanwhile, come in many forms, such as the recurring joke of a man who keeps ringing Lifesavers disguised as a terminally ill person but is really an obscene caller. While he is able to appropriately creep out Catherine, he gets frustrated when, upon calling a second time, he gets Mrs. Muchnik, who doesn’t even realize she’s speaking to a pervert. When he calls a third time to an office which has all but been abandoned by everyone, save for trans woman Chris, who takes it upon herself to answer, the caller begins his act again, pleading, “May I speak to a woman? May I please wish a woman Merry Christmas,” to which Chris flatly replies, “You ARE speaking to a woman,” causing the caller to defeatedly hang up for a third and final time.
One of the trickiest aspects Mixed Nuts had going for it was that it was a Christmas movie that in many ways is decidedly anti-Christmas. There isn’t a necessarily up front bah humbug feel to the film, but so much of Mixed Nuts speaks to the notion that just because it’s that time of the year, it doesn’t mean that the expected magic or joy is always a guarantee. Mixed Nuts proves this idea true by its un-Christmas-y L.A. setting with a snowman made out of sand, self-involved rollerbladers (a pre-fame Jon Stewart and Parker Posey) skating home with a Christmas tree, and a fruitcake that’s re-gifted so many times throughout the film it’s hard to keep track. Apart from that, there’s the sad state of the way everyone in the film intends to spend the holiday. The recently-dumped Philip intends to stay in and mope, optimistic Catherine is going home to her mother eternally hoping for a Christmas miracle, Gracie has left Felix, Chris is looking for anyone to connect with, and Mrs. Munchnik continuously reminds everyone that she is due for dinner at the home of her dead husband’s relatives, stating, “I am NOT someone with no place to go.”
Ephron was nothing if not an insightful writer regardless of whatever medium she was working in. Mixed Nuts proves this in the wise and soulful pathos it displays throughout. Yes, the film is a comedy, but more than anything else, Mixed Nuts is a tribute for those individuals who find life hardest of all during the holidays. Not unpleasant, but rather genuinely just hard to take. One of the greatest thing about the film is that everyone in it is lacking and longing in different and relatable ways. As make-up artist Gracie tells Catherine after giving her a makeover as a Christmas present, “I have spent my whole life trying to make something out of nothing. Don’t take that personally, Catherine,” she quickly adds. “But just once I wish I had something to begin with.” It’s Philip who really drives the point home when he tells a suicidal Felix, “Christmas is a time when you look through a magnifying glass and everything you don’t have feels so overwhelming.” It’s moments like these where Mixed Nuts is at its best by acknowledging those who feel forgotten or left behind by the magic and joy everyone else gets to experience during this time of the year.
Bolstered by that unique brand of Ephron comedy and their own talent for creating laughter, each cast member of Mixed Nuts gives it their all throughout the entire course of the film. Ostensibly the straight man of the piece, Martin manages plenty of laughs in his own right as he makes Philip the sanest member of the group. Wilson has never been lovelier in a rare turn as the female lead, while Mixed Nuts gave Lewis the first real chance to showcase her unknown comedy chops. Sandler plays Sandler before that became annoying, and Schreiber makes a real solid impression in his feature film debut. The real standout remains Kahn, who is given a great role to once again delight with her trademark comedic stylings. It’s not many actresses who could be stuck in an elevator without a single other actor around and still garner laughs. She could.
Critics and audiences were, at best, kind to the movie’s performers. At least that’s the way it seemed when compared to their feelings about the overall film. Billed as being “the new comedy from the director of Sleepless in Seattle,” everyone went into Mixed Nuts believing they were in for a charming and dreamy romantic comedy rather than the dark farce they film showed itself to be. As a result, Mixed Nuts became one of the biggest bombs of 1994.
Some people have always poked fun at the fact that I have an affinity for Christmas movies, with some even daring to ask why it is I love them as much as I do. I always explain how, as a lover of film, it’s always interesting to see the different ways the holidays are represented and what it says about various times and places. More than that, though, I remark on how Christmas is one of the few elements of life which is completely universal, reaching every human being on this planet in one way or another. Watching it be depicted on film is always going be fascinating on some level because everyone has a Christmas…even a group of mixed nuts in L.A.