The end of the year is generally thought of as Hollywood's time to set aside the fluff of summer and trot out its awards-worthy show ponies. But, along with the sober-minded and artistically ambitious dramas, there are always a few comedic stocking-stuffers in the mix.
Nostalgic memories of classics like "Miracle on 34th Street" and "It's a Wonderful Life" notwithstanding, holiday-season comedies in recent years have often skewed toward the darker end of the spectrum. Case in point: last year's R-rated, mayhem-filled "The Night Before," which included a scene of Seth Rogen vomiting in a church during a Midnight Mass.
Continuing the trend, this year's roster of holiday-season comedies includes four films that center on a dysfunctional group of one kind or another — feuding family members, beleaguered office co-workers, depraved criminals — who are struggling to get through this most wonderful time of the year with, if not peace and joy, at least a minimum of psychic damage.
Almost Christmas (Nov. 11)
In writer-director David E. Talbert's comedy — which features an all-star cast that includes Danny Glover, Gabrielle Union, Omar Epps and, in her first film comedy in nearly a decade, Mo'Nique — a family with a great deal of emotional baggage gathers on Christmas for the first time since the death of the matriarch who had always bound them together.
"I'm a fan of holiday movies and thought it was way overdue for another one with an African American cast," says playwright-turned-filmmaker Talbert, who previously directed the comedies "First Sunday" and "Baggage Claim." "But the goal was to make a comedy that's universal in themes, where it doesn't matter what color you are. Dysfunction has no color."
Bad Santa 2 (Nov. 23)
Perhaps the most gleefully dark and filthy holiday comedy in Hollywood history, Terry Zwigoff's original 2003 "Bad Santa" has become a holiday staple for those whose taste in Christmas movies runs to the unwholesome. Thirteen years later, this sequel finds Billy Bob Thornton's alcoholic criminal Willie Soke caught up with partner-in-crime Marcus (Tony Cox) in a new scheme to rob a charity, this time with his equally amoral mother (Kathy Bates) joining in on the action.
For director Mark Waters ("Freaky Friday"), diving headlong into the profane was liberating. "The cuffs are off and you can go as far as you possibly can, which is completely freeing and fun," Waters says. "People who've seen the movie say it's even raunchier than the first one, which makes me proud because I'm the guy who does family films."
Office Christmas Party (Dec. 9)
Jason Bateman, Jennifer Aniston, T.J. Miller and Kate McKinnon lead the ensemble in this raucous comedy about a struggling branch of a tech company that throws a massive, booze-fueled holiday party in a desperate, last-ditch attempt to impress a prospective business partner and save itself from being shut down.
"Office Christmas parties have become a slightly endangered species with HR and the litigious world we live in," says Josh Gordon, who co-directed the film with Will Speck. "It's like the one night a year where the caste system kind of breaks down and people live honestly with each other, for good or for bad."
As Speck puts it, "You're always just one drink away from ruining your professional life."
Why Him? (Dec. 23)
With the holidays approaching, a pair of straitlaced, overprotective Midwestern parents (Bryan Cranston and Megan Mullally) are horrified when their daughter (Zoey Deutch) brings them to meet her new boyfriend, a foul-mouthed, tattooed Silicon Valley billionaire (James Franco).
For director John Hamburg ("I Love You, Man"), watching the Oscar-nominated, Emmy-winning Cranston fully embrace some of the film's more outrageous comic set pieces was a special thrill. "I don't think Bryan had ever been in a comedy like this but he just got into it," Hamburg says. "I promised, out of respect for him being such a brilliant actor, I won't reveal some of the more R-rated jokes in the movie that were actually his pitches."