2019

Sundance London Review: Patrick Brice’s ‘Corporate Animals’

Despite Demi Moore’s run as a romantic comedy star in the early years of her career, most people probably don’t think of her as possessing a terrific amount of goofball comic energy. Corporate Animals, then, is a hell of a comeback for a star who has struggled to retain marquee status. As Lucy, the CEO of Incredible Edibles, she’s ostensibly on a mission to protect the environment by producing edible cutlery as a way of combating plastic fork waste.

Directed by Patrick Brice (Creep) and written by Sam Bain (Peep Show), Corporate Animals satirizes 21st century corporate culture through a team-building retreat gone wrong. Lucy casually gropes her subordinates, and she brags about being descended from the Acoma tribe. Lucy is an interesting parody of workplace leaders using overly-woke corporate language to control their employees and get away with the kind of abuses they seem to scold. Indeed, at the beginning of Corporate Animals, all of the employees have more or less bought into Lucy’s ideology, even if some have their reservations. But the film only uses their complicity in corporate malpractice through the metaphor of cannibalism.

The first sign that the retreat won’t be going as planned is about a minute in, when the long-suffering intern Aiden (Calum Worthy) gets a spike in his leg. The group heads underground and gets trapped. Pretty quickly, they turn to cannibalism, which becomes the main theme of Corporate Animals; a metaphor for the cut-throat corporate politics of one-upmanship. Lucy assumes ownership over the bodies of her employees in a way that’s quite frightening and not necessarily explored with enough depth. She’s a cartoon villain, but a really funny one, and it’s great to see Moore fit so smoothly into the UCB style of comedy.

Theres a lack of detail, however, in Corporate Animals’ script. The staging makes the power dynamics overly simplistic and stops the film from reaching a real comic breakthrough. Bain doesn’t imitate the Lubitsch Touch, but the divide between Moore and the rest of the ensemble is the only one with any dramatic weight. If this is the corporate metaphor Bain was approaching, it’s too overly simplistic and wastes the potential for comic satire.

On laughs alone, it’s hard to go too far wrong when you’re assembling a cast from Saturday Night Live, Two Dope Queens and Veep, but there’s quite a misuse of Isiah Whitlock Jr. (not even a reference to his catchphrase from The Wire). He and Dan Bakkedahl, funny as their comic energy may be, are ill-suited to the film. The satirical knife is pointed at startup yuppies, so these middle-aged men and their grumpy personas feel out of place, and there aren’t any jokes to lampshade this incongruity either.

Corporate Animals is more successful when it uses gross out and bodily humour. “That’s quite a meal,” Jessica Williams grimaces as she takes her first bite into human flesh. Aiden is driven to delusions as a result of fighting to stay perky despite having the lowest status in the office. Before too long, he’s hearing voices (Britney Spears) in a Cronenbergian bit.

Brice and company get too tied up in the character comedy for Corporate Animals to work as a satire (or to really say anything at all), and the televisual filmmaking isn’t helped by a plotline that could have been a single episode of The Office. This is essentially a bottle episode, and the uniform costumes and dreary cave setting don’t help it to warrant a big screen experience. However, the drab visuals do get interrupted by a fun, animated dream sequence halfway through. Other stylistic choices like the ubiquitous Big Text for chapter titles operate as a jump laugh, but these touches are all from a much braver and more consistent genre film. Corporate Animals is, at least, a film which doesn’t spare the laughs and gives Demi Moore a platform for her comic chops.

Ben Flanagan (@peche_lives) is a British critic and recent MA Film graduate from The University of Bristol. He’s contributed to Mubi Notebook, DMovies and has lots of feelings on classic Hollywood, Paul Verhoeven and online cinema culture.

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