The film kicks off by showing us exactly how true its title is. Nick Hendricks (Jason Bateman) is completely under the thumb of his boss, Dave Harken (Kevin Spacey), who squeezes Nick for extra work by perpetually dangling a promotion in front of him, all the while crushing his spirit through liberal use of condescension and humiliation.
Kurt Buckman (Jason Sudeikis) loves his job as an account manager at a chemical company owned by kindly old Jack Pellit (Donald Sutherland), but he hates Jack’s son, Bobby (Colin Farrell), who is a raging dickhead coke fiend who stands to inherit the company when his father dies and views it mainly as a way to fund his drug and hooker habits.
Dale Arbus (Charlie Day) works as a dental hygienist for Dr. Julia Harris (Jennifer Aniston), whose constant sexual harassment proves to be somewhat uncomfortable, particularly when she sprays water on Dale’s crotch. Dale’s problem might not seem all that problematic to his friends, but he has a fiancée (Lindsay Sloane) he loves, and he doesn’t want to cheat on her.
The guys are all friends, and they get together after work to drink beer and tell stories about their terrible jobs. One drunken night, a hypothetical conversation somehow becomes a very real pact to kill all their bosses. It’s a sad sign of the economy these days that it is probably an easier proposition to murder your boss than to find another job. Realizing that they don’t know much about murder, the guys drive to the bad part of town and seek help from the delightfully named Motherfucker Jones (Jamie Foxx). Because of their own obvious motives, the guys decide to murder each other’s bosses, Strangers on a Train style, evidently not believing the cops to be smart enough to figure out that they’re friends.
The three main characters are all very funny, and their easy chemistry is the primary reason the film is so funny, even though none of the three lead actors gives a particularly surprising performance. Bateman’s character is squarely pitched toward the priggish, deadpan persona that he perfected on Arrested Development, all sighs and sarcasm. Sudeikis is also doing a variation of the horndog character he played in this year’s comedy Hall Pass.
Day is the film’s standout, although he is basically playing the same character he plays on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, all shrill, dopey enthusiasm. A lot of guys wouldn’t mind being harassed by Aniston, but Day projects a kind of goofy innocence that sells it.
It’s from the bosses that the real surprises come. Farrell is obviously having a lot of fun here, with his bad comb-over and his prosthetics. Much like Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder, he seems freed up under the make-up to go crazy and have a ball.
Aniston is also very funny here, relishing the opportunity to dig into such outrageous material and seemingly willing to do anything. If only her romantic comedies displayed this kind of energy.
Only Spacey is a real veteran at this sort of thing. He is essentially playing his character from Swimming with Sharks if he made it another 15 years before someone decided to take him out. Spacey is the obvious choice to play this kind of character, but he does it very well.
The film was directed by Seth Gordon, who made the terrific documentary The King of Kong and has worked on TV series Parks and Recreation and The Office. However, this is Gordon’s first narrative feature, and he doesn’t quite have the experience yet to keep things as disciplined and well-paced as they need to be, resulting in a movie that can be lumpy, and misplaces its focus at times, mostly forgetting about the bosses after the murder plot gets underway.
Much of the uneven nature of the movie can be blamed on the script, written by Michael Markovitz, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein. The script is mostly made up of slapstick set pieces, with little attention paid to a cohesive story, and a finale that relies too much upon car chases and police and too little on jokes.
The film is also a black comedy that isn’t quite dark enough. With films such as Bridesmaids, Bad Teacher and The Hangover: Part II all being hits this year, audiences have shown increased tolerance for bad behavior, and comedies featuring rotten bastards as the main characters, so it would have been nice if Horrible Bosses had pushed the envelope a little bit.
The movie is funny throughout but, if anything, given the premise, it needed to play a little rougher. It never feels like there is any danger that the characters might actually go through with their plan. The movie is never willing to go that far. I didn’t need the movie to jump headfirst into bitterness and misery—this isn’t Very Bad Things—but a little more unpredictability would have been nice.
Even in serious matters the film doesn’t quite commit. The film dips its toe into matters of class differences, racism, misogyny and homophobia, but never really dives in to explore the icky issues it raises. For example, the film is content with treating Aniston’s character as the least despicable of the three bosses, which is a double standard that certainly wouldn’t be true if her character was a man harassing a woman.
Horrible Bosses is a very funny movie, with great performances from all six of its main characters, but the filmmakers seem content to make the sitcom version of this story, while the movie in its best moments suggests a meaner, more dangerous version that will never be realized.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to email@example.com.