Close your eyes and you can pretty much imagine the full “package” of a movie that would make its premiere on Comedy Central.
It’d be derivative — familiar and “new” at the same time. Maybe update “The Office” for the Zoom Meeting era, with ditzy “types” over-sharing, accidentally or on purpose, the most intimate details of their messy lives.
“How do I ‘mute?'” “How do I ‘Leave Meeting?'”
The cast? Same deal, mix the familiar with the new. Put Jason Alexander and Cheri Oteri in small roles, give Ken Jeong, Leslie Jones and Jay Pharaoh supporting parts and make the perky “New Ellie Kemper/Kimmy Schmidt” your lead.
“Out of Office” was scripted and directed by an “Office” writer and on-air regular, Paul Lieberstein, who was the put-upon HR nebbish on the show. It’s not his first directorial rodeo, but since no one saw the adorable “Song of Back and Neck,” he returned to the comic situation that keeps on giving for his latest, another story of the cutesy, quarrelsome workplace “family” that has been a fact of life for American sitcoms, if not “real life,” since “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
It’s got a few laughs and a tiny dollop of heart, and wouldn’t have made a dime in theaters or much of a splash on Netflix or Paramount+. But it fits Comedy Central to a T.
Milana Vayntrub of the early years of “This Is Us” stars as Eliza, whom we meet as she’s escorted out of her latest workplace, a cardboard box with her belongings in it. She’s 28 and this isn’t her first “escort.” That’s why she’s cut-off in the middle of asking her parents (Oteri and Alexander) for money, brushing past the “Whattaya think room and BOARD is?” Because they’re selling the house she’s been mooching off them in to retire and move to Paris.
Eliza’s checkered employment history and lifetime of odd, impulsive choices means her exasperated dad won’t give her money before they board the plane. No, any cash she might need is entrusted to her younger, more responsible dental-hygienist sister.
Not to worry. That next job could be as close as the next job interview. It isn’t just the screwball in charge (Jeong) of this online help line who chats her up. He Zooms in the entire screwball staff (Emily Pendergast, Christopher Nicholas Smith, Elaine Carroll and Pharaoh) for the interview, which goes poorly until Eliza tells the boss what the others won’t — aka “what he wants to hear” about how to deal with his ongoing fight with his ever-escalating wife (Jones). Yeah, it’s bad advice and everybody else knows it. Consequence-free Eliza shrugs it off and gets the job.
But Mom’s parting words — “His marriage IS your job!” — should sink in. Think before you speak, give better suggestions and hope you’re a help. That’s a steep learning curve for Eliza to climb. Let’s see if she can manage it.
Liberstein populates this “Office” with absurdly-familiar, broadly drawn caricatures — the clueless guy in charge, the shaved-head, camo-clad veteran (Carroll), the argumentative over-qualified hunk (Smith), the too-nice wife (Pendergast) who shares too much of her not-able-to-conceive life with her office-mates, with her over-sharing husband (Chris Gethard) also working from their dormer office, free to blurt random input into every conversation. And then there’s our common sensible guy who went to the same college as Eliza (Pharoah), the “Designated Jim” (romantic interest) here, for those who remember the NBC TV series Lieberstein is recycling.
The banter is funny enough, starting with the Q&A job interview for work “literally ANYbody can do.”
“I see you’ve had a lot of…short time jobs?” “Yes. Thank you!”
A little office politics is introduced. A take-over is coming. The boss’s marital arguments turn uglier, more profane, more sexual and even scatological.
Then there are the little gems that would grab attention at any table read or writers brainstorming session for a sitcom. Jones’ wife character threatens to cheat with their aged neighbor, played by Monte Markham who makes that funny. Somebody plots throwing a “surprise” birthday party in the middle of an already-planned office party. (I can see Steve Carell trying that on “The Office.”).
And the staff’s way of calming boss Kyle in a bad moment is suggesting “a ‘Babe’ break.” That little interlude is just adorable.
Vayntrub makes a pleasant enough lead who would have been helped by sharper writing — more interesting character traits, funnier situations, a more obstacle-filled attempted courtship and funnier dialogue.
As with a lot of sitcoms, the idea here is to surround the romantic leads with funnier folk, and that works. Jones and Jeong on down the line deliver, with even “Office” alum Oscar Nunez scoring in a single scene as the new owner, bragging about taking “little companies” and making them into “great ones.” Quite the Mexican success story.
“My father lets me buy one company every two years!”
As a film, though, “Out of Office” plays more like a pilot to a sitcom that never was, a project any principled network “suit” would watch and dismiss.
“Too derivative,” she’d say. “We’ve already SEEN ‘The Office.'”
Rating: unrated, sexual situations, toilet humor, profanity (TV-14)
Cast: Milana Vayntrub, Jay Pharoah, Ken Jeong, Leslie Jones, Oscar Nunez, Emily Pendergast, Chris Gethard, Elaine Carroll, Christopher Nicholas Smith, Cheri Oteri and Jason Alexander.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Paul Lieberstein. A Paramount/MTV Films release (Sept. 5) on Comedy Central.
Running time: 1:26