By Matt Smith
Comedy is a difficult genre to assess. There’s no surefire way to make a good one, and even less consensus on how the final product will be received by an audience. Often, really strong dialogue and amusing situations are enough, but their effectiveness always increases ten-fold by the inclusion of a capable star through which we can experience them. And let’s be clear: precious few actors are really good at screen comedy. In Horrible Bosses, the new film by Seth Gordon, who aside from his terrific documentaries King of Kong and Freakonomics has cut his teeth on some of television’s best sitcoms (Parks and Recreation, The Office), we are given a trio of leads that are likable and hilarious, and another trio of veteran supporting actors to play their eponymous bosses.
Nick, Dale and Kurt (Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, and Jason Sudeikis, respectively) are three men who are tortured at work by their horrible bosses. Nick has a promotion dangled in front of his face for eight years while enduring endless abuse and nitpicking punishments only to have the company’s president, Mr. Harken (Kevin Spacey), proclaim himself the new V.P. Dale, a dental assistant, is sexually harassed by Julia (Jennifer Aniston), a sex-starved maniac of a dentist who does wildly inappropriate things while her patients are under sedation. And Kurt – well, he actually likes his boss – until he dies, leaving the small chemical company he works for in the hands of his coke-head son, Bobby Pellitt (Colin Farrell), who treats the company like his personal ATM machine and has no problem running it into the ground to squeeze every last cent.
Taking its cue from Alfred Hitchcock (and the terrific Throw Momma From The Train), the set-up then becomes that they need out of their admittedly awful situations, but with the economy the way it is, they can’t just quit, and there’s not much in the way of legal action they could take, since…well, that’s a small plot hole. In any case, they need to change their situations for the better. Enter the ridiculous, but not totally unthinkable project of murdering each other’s bosses in order to obtain this goal. Pellitt and Harken are definitely completely unlikable people, and I don’t think anyone would miss them if they were killed, but, much like Kurt and Nick, I can’t bring myself to think that Dale’s problem with Julia isn’t of the same calibre. As awkward and embarrassing and possibly illegal as what he has done to him is, Julia looks like Jennifer Aniston. And yes, she does attempt to blackmail him into having sex with her by having taken inappropriate photos with him while he was getting some dental work done, and yes, that technically makes her a “raper”. And I know, rape is rape, but it’s presented here as an attempt at making the audience laugh, and it does succeed in that, so it’s hard to gain sympathy for a character’s decision to bump someone off based on their coming onto them sexually at every possible turn. Whether this is really something worth caring too much about is beside the point.
The comedy has to come from somewhere, and the ineptness of our three heroes at pulling off such a task is its primary source, and their decision is the primary conceit of the film. No blind attempt at something absurd = no movie. In order to bump off their bosses, the three decide to hire a hit man, the first of whom, found in the Men Seeking Men ads (presumably on Craigslist) under “Wet Work”, turns out to be not exactly what they were looking for. Not surprising for the mere $200 Dale agreed to pay him. They then find an ex-con named “Motherfucker” Jones (a pretty good Jamie Foxx – I was surprised) who, after suckering them for $5,000, ends up being their murder consultant and giving them advice on how to pull it off and not get caught. Turns out this doesn’t matter anyway, since fortuitous circumstances lead to Harken killing Pellitt in cold blood, and then leaving the guys as the main suspects in the police investigation.
But enough plot. The real joys of Horrible Bosses are the spaces in between, where the men craft a believable set of characters out of essentially nonsensical archetypes: the straight man, the ladies man, and the childlike idiot. And while Charlie Day doesn’t quite hit Zach Galifianakis heights of man-child bliss (more Due Date and less Hangover), he successfully carries some of the character traits from his work on It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, and thankfully hangs on to his bumbling, hyperactive delivery style, which is especially effective in a coked-up rendition of the Ting Tings “That’s Not My Name” sung while conducting surveillance on Harken. His silliness is well-balanced by vets Sudeikis and Bateman, and their banter is delivered with confidence and speed, which works well in a comedy like this where reality is already suspended a fair deal.
And then there’s Jennifer Aniston, who I really like a great deal when she’s given the right material. Here, cast against type as the sex-starved and sexually harassing dentist Julia Harris she is exactly the shade of outrageous that was lacking when Cameron Diaz pulled a similar potty-mouthed stunt in Bad Teacher a month ago. Where Diaz’s outrageous behavior and explicit language wasn’t quite naughty enough, Aniston delivers some exchanges with Charlie Day that are truly shocking from someone who has largely cultivated her career by playing a somewhat typical girl next door type, and whose comedic talents usually end up thusly wasted. If this role is any indication as to where she may be taking her comedy career, then I look forward even more to her upcoming work with director David Wain, who doesn’t shy away at all from the filthy and outrageous.
Horrible Bosses was, for me, exactly the dose of nastiness I needed for the middle of the summer. It’s not quite pitch-black, but dark enough in tone, and featuring a lot of things its makers should be proud of. The guys don’t cross over into the realm of true crime, which probably helps in regard to keeping the audience on their side, and it’s easy to see that this movie is meant to be a crowd pleasing take on the universality of hating the people we work for. I recommend it because it made me laugh, and because I like everyone in it. If it seems like I didn’t discuss much of the film’s particulars, that was because a lot of what I could have mentioned is funnier to discover on the movie’s terms and not mine.