Silver Screen: Horrible Bosses **1/2
The theme, in brief, of Mike Judge's white-collar manifesto Office Space was, “Work sucks.” The notion behind the recession-angst-tinged comedy Horrible Bosses is a more moderate, “Work sucks if the people you're working for suck.” It's a softer statement to be sure, but aptly timed, even considering the fact that zinging the man in charge is always welcome.
Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, and Jason Sudeikis star as three aging school friends bearing the burden of malevolent employers. Bateman's Nick is a white-collar schlub working unpaid overtime to earn a promotion that's never going to come from the company's smug president (Kevin Spacey). Kurt (Sudeikis) loves his job at a locally owned chemical company until his boss (Donald Sutherland, there just for a second) croaks, leaving his coked-up, egomaniacal son (Colin Farrell) in charge. Least probable of all, dental hygienist Dale (Day) is ceaselessly harassed by his wildly unethical, sexually voracious overlord, an S-and-M D.D.S. (Jennifer Aniston).
One night while commiserating over drinks, the group stumbles upon the idea of killing one another's bosses to free themselves and minimize the risk of getting caught. (They acknowledge the similarity to Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train; it's one of the many jokey movie references littered around the script in a vaguely Apatovian fashion.) A self-styled “Murder Consultant” (Jamie Foxx) advises them in the ways of homicide, but the trio consistently lack the gumption and the ruthlessness to do the deed.
It's noteworthy that the lack of gumption, rather than the moral question, is the dominant comedic conflict in the movie. The consequences of committing murder are addressed fleetingly. Of course, just based on the cast alone, it's impossible to imagine any of these guys committing murder. At worst, Bateman looks like he might steal your credit cards and sleep with your relatives, and he's the mean one. That the driving premise almost inevitably will not come to pass defangs Horrible Bosses as a dark comedy almost from the get-go. That all three leads are so endearing, yet seem so casually willing to kill a stranger, strikes a dissonant tone that pervades the rest of the movie.
Horrible Bosses doesn't work particularly well as a workplace satire either, largely because it's so inauthentic and non-specific. We don't even know what the hell it is that Nick is up to in that office, and the vagueness of his position isn't itself commented on. In every other respect than the horrible bosses of the title, Dale and Kurt's jobs are presented as blandly ideal. The same hilariously incisive details in Office Space that articulated the frustrations of corporate work-- the T.P.S. reports, the cover letters, perennially broken copy machines, dauntingly banal coworkers-- are entirely absent.
Horrible Bosses is still passably funny, thanks to an intermittently punchy script expertly sold by the three strong leads. Bateman's ability to pass off smarm as charm and make it work is impressive, and Day, the funniest castmember of the consistently entertaining sitcom It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, has a likeability that translates easily to the big screen. It's a funny trio pitted against a slightly more uneven crew of antagonists. Spacey is spectacular in a role he must have done ten times by now, vastly outpacing the delightfully wormy turn by Farrell. Poor Aniston, America's Eternally Aggrieved Sweetheart, struggles gamely with the worst character in the worst part of the script. A slew of cameos and bit parts from the supporting players-- especially Foxx-- help pad the movie in its weaker moments, but it's more damage control than anything else.