Streaming services changed the movie industry in a plethora of ways. One subtle but noteworthy loss is the significance of TV movies. Besides your Lifetime and Hallmark Industrial Complexes churning out schlock year-after-year, most networks relegated these projects to the bowels of streaming. So, when I saw a trailer for a “Comedy Central Original Movie” — the first one in a blue moon — called Office Race over the long Labor Day weekend, I had to put it on my schedule.
Bear with me, reader. This is not a very good film, but there’s an unmistakable charm present throughout. The film feels like a comedy circa 2004, and I mean that in its decision to playfully rib a group of people (runners) as opposed to politics while also flirting with raunchy territory without ever quite being too dirty. Furthermore, this feels like a film that’s perfectly nested on the late-night Comedy Central lineup of shows and movies. It doesn’t feel like the product of studio-heads relying on algorithms and phony metrics in order to create a movie that effectively pleases few and is forgotten in mere weeks.
Office Race follows Pat (Beck Bennett), a man in his mid-thirties stuck in a rut. He’s in a hopeless relationship with his girlfriend, Pat (Alyson Hannigan), and his job selling ads for a money transfer app is completely out of his league. His coworker, Spencer (Joel McHale), harbors high standards and is running circles around him with his arrogance and success. During a lunch meeting after securing a promotion, Spencer chats up a client named Rita (Erinn Hayes) about their mutual love of running and the upcoming Sweet Peach Marathon.
Ultimately defeated and not trying to be broken down any longer, Pat commits to running the marathon despite never having run one in his life. He doubles down by making a bet with Spencer, forcing him to go hard when it comes to training and remaining faithful to the charities. He also has a desperately difficult time trying to relate to his fellow runners, including Harry (J. B. Smoove), whose commitment is only rivaled by his eccentricities as a defining trait. Pat would much rather be watching videos of farting goats or watching the Fast and Furious movies with his pal Dave (Matt Richards), but now he’s roped himself into a seemingly impossible situation.
With Beck Bennett playing the straightest of straight men, Joel McHale almost has no choice but to steal the spotlight. He goes cartoonishly over-the-top in a way that reminded me of Joel David Moore’s performance in Grandma’s Boy, which got progressively stranger as that film went on. By the time of the marathon, McHale’s Spencer turns into a rapidly decaying zombie of a runner, using most of his energy to insult Pat as he tries to finish the race. McHale’s dastardly attempts at sabotage coupled with his increasing lunacy keep Office Race in the running for at least being interesting, especially at only 80 minutes long.
But Office Race has the ambition of Pat. It’s content with being a mostly middling series of sitcom-level antics that result in a lot of shenanigans, but few laughs. One of the film’s funnier sequences comes at a running store, where Kelsey Grammer plays a store associate who brags about the time he broke both ankles yet still finished a race. Then, Rita asks him if they sell any saws just in case she falls down a crevasse when running and needs to saw her leg out. This scene works because it satirizes the persistent nature of one-upping the competition in an individual sport. The jokes satirizing running culture are far more assured and crafty than most of the situational comedy.
Office Race at least reminds us that mediocre TV movies still have a leg up over crappy streaming movies, and because of that, it’s a difficult movie to outright loathe. When you see Joel McHale giving it his all, and the film at least keeping things short and fluid, it reminds you that there is a functional gray area for middle-of-the-road comedies that, while not great, aren’t dog-awful.
NOTE: Office Race is playing intermittently on Comedy Central throughout the month of September, available to stream on Comedy Central’s website, and is streaming on Fubo TV, Sling TV, and Spectrum.
Starring: Beck Bennett, Joel McHale, Erinn Hayes, Alyson Hannigan, Matt Richards, Kylie Bunbury, and Kelsey Grammer. Directed by: Jared Lapidus.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!