Seth Gordon’s Horrible Bosses, the story of three buddies who conspire to kill their evil employers, is dude humor run amuck. A good three-quarters of it is funny, goofy and fast-paced, but that’s tempered by sections of unchecked idiocy, namely lame jokes around race, gender and sexuality. Almost every actor in it outplays the material they’re working with, particularly Jason Bateman. Horrible Bosses would be worth seeing if only for the pleasure of watching him delicately bat indelicate comedy around.
He plays Nick, a guy striving to be made senior vice president of sales for a vaguely defined company headed by tyrannical Dave Harken (Kevin Spacey). Dave screws Nick out of his promotion at the same time as his old high school pals Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) and Dale (Charlie Day of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) reach the end of their ropes with their own bosses. Kurt’s is a cocaine fiend (Colin Farrell) intent on running a family business into the ground, while Dale, a sweet dental technician who looks like a Furby, is being sexual harassed by predatory dentist Julia Harris (Jennifer Aniston).
“Yours doesn’t sound that bad,” Kurt tells Dale when he complains about Julia. The audience may agree: does the over-sexed dentist really need to die along with the sadistic suit and the diabolical cokehead? (The sliver of a reason is that Dale fears Julia will drive his naive fiancé away.) Presumably a woman boss was added because three guys trying to kill three guys is a little too Goodfellas; at least this puts someone sexy in the mix. Writing Julia as a raunchier version of Demi Moore’s Disclosure character seems like a lazy excuse to keep her clothing to a minimum.
I could expound on the implausibility of Julia’s ferocious insistence on bedding Dale. I could lament Aniston having gotten roped into this (along with Modern Family’s brilliant Julie Bowen, who fares no better as Dave Harken’s slutty cartoon of a wife). But you can’t feel sorry for Aniston. She is a big girl. She knows the industry and I doubt she needs the money. She certainly has enough clout to have called for rewrites if she’d wanted them. (See TIME’s Summer Entertainment Preview 2011.)
There’s a giddily self-aware tone throughout Horrible Bosses; it’s constantly reaching chattily out to the audience, as if to defuse the dark topic of employer homicide with the reminder that this is just a movie. The ultimate meta moment comes when murder consultant Dean “MF” Jones (a tatted-up, very amusing Jamie Foxx) suggests that they do each other’s dirty work — an arrangement, they realize, that echoes Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Dale the amiable dope bobs his head in happy recognition. “The Danny DeVito one?” he asks. Kurt reminds Dale that he’s thinking of Throw Momma From the Train, the 1987 rip-off of the Hitchcock classic. It’s a sly reminder that there are few new ideas in Hollywood.
Horrible Bosses makes no pretense that it’s doing anything more than putting a new spin on an old theme. It’s Hangover Hitchcock, with guys putting toothbrushes down their pants, locking each other out of cars, debating who would get raped in prison first and bumbling through a plot to commit murder. In the weak-thus-far summer of 2011, it is filled with enough gleeful comic characterizations to feel like a success. Farrell does something akin to what Tom Cruise did in Tropic Thunder, vanishing so far into a grotesque that he’s all but unrecognizable (he even looks like Cruise’s Les Grossman). Spacey has some good silky-evil moments, Day is charming and Saturday Night Live’s Sudeikis is pleasingly smarmy.
And always, there is Bateman. The Bateman, the beautifully bland calm in any comic storm. As the movie goes on he gets quieter and quieter, but he’s always doing something with his face or voice that you don’t want to miss. He’s the Fred Astaire of the sideways glance; you know it’s a conscious pose, a bit he does, the same way Astaire kicked a leg out to the side, but all you can do is admire the elegance of the delivery, the perfection of his timing. I laughed a lot during Horrible Bosses, but I kept wishing it could do better, rely less on misogyny and homophobic prison-rape speculation for laughs. It made me wistful for the ultimate dude movie, The Big Lebowski, which never put a foot out of place. Neither does Jason Bateman. I wish the Coen brothers would write him a part.