By this point, the awkwardness of corporate retreats has been well-established as companies insist co-workers trust each other as if they were family, yet the merciless nature of capitalism insists companies won’t offer the same level of trust in return and in fact will take a weekend away from your real family to engage in some activity you’re woefully physically unprepared for, whether it be rock climbing or paint balling. So when you see the employees of Incredible Edibles standing in the middle of New Mexico attempt to leverage a heavy boulder into a podium, a task that requires their collective wits and physical strength in “Corporate Animals,” it becomes unnecessary for director Patrick Brice and screenwriter Sam Bain to offer much more exposition upfront than that they toil under a boss, Lucy (Demi Moore), who espouses socially conscious platitudes but for whom any generosity is ultimately exposed to be self-serving.
A lot of awful stuff happens once the group gets stuck in a cave, forced to cooperate with much larger stakes on the line and already barely able to hide for their contempt for one another, but nothing is ever seen as worse than the reason they’ve been assembled for this folly in the first place, participating in the illusion that corporations have any interest in their well-being or any values besides fearing anything that might make their shareholders look bad. It gives the room for the filmmakers and a brilliant comedic ensemble that includes Jessica Williams, Ed Helms and a host of scene-stealers such as Karan Soni (“Deadpool”), Martha Kelly (“Baskets”), Isiah Whitlock Jr. (“The Wire”), Nasim Pedrad, Jennifer Kim, Dan Bakkedahl (“Veep”) and Calum Worthy to shine as they tackle all kinds of ethical failings often overlooked in the pursuit of the almighty dollar, even in such a cramped space.
Besides being the first narrative film (to my knowledge) to dive headfirst into sexual politics in the workplace post-Weinstein and mentioning the disgraced exec by name, the deliciously savage satire finds silly yet sophisticated ways to consider how outdated corporate power structures have bent without breaking to achieve real innovation, with Lucy seeing her minority hires as a superficial sign of progress for what they represent than who they actually are and the value placed on potential rather than proof. (One of the film’s sharpest moments comes when Soni’s Freddy has to concede that though his invention may have become the company’s bread and butter, it’s less valuable than Lucy’s ability to sell it, a weakness of his.)
“Corporate Animals” gets darker both literally and figuratively as it wears on, as the group’s portable power wanes over days they remain stranded and tensions run high, but the film’s wicked humor, Michael Yezerski’s perfectly cacophonous score and Brice’s ability to shake things up keep it lively and light. Having perfected sustaining tension in discomforting comedies largely built around a single location such as “Creep” and “The Overnight,” Brice is ideally suited to turn the constraints of “Corporate Animals”’ contained scenario into opportunities and he shows off a great ability once more to make a comedy that feels genuinely dangerous, matching Bain’s barbed observations of corporate culture that are often left unsaid with the kinds of things you’ll rarely see onscreen, whether it’s an animated fever dream with music from the B-52s here or a random flash of one male character’s junk there, offering up a strong example of the many rewards that can come from not doing business as usual.
“Corporate Animals” will screen at Sundance on January 30th at 11:59 at the Library Center Theatre in Park City, January 31st at 11:30 pm at the Prospector Square Theatre in Park City, February 1st at 6 pm at the Broadway Centre Cinema in Salt Lake City, February 2nd at 10 pm at the Holiday Village Cinema in Park City.