Directed by Seth Gordon (King of Kong, Four Christmases), Horrible Bosses chronicles the sad-sack lives of three working guys who, as the title not-so-subtly establishes, have a certain degree of dissatisfaction with their careers. Uptight, upright Nick (Jason Bateman) works for a mercurial martinet (Kevin Spacey). Easygoing, engaged Dale (Charlie Day) works for a sexually voracious dentist (Jennifer Aniston) who, between filling her patients’ cavities, is impatient to have him fill several of hers. And hale and hearty Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) is dealihg with the realization that the death of his old boss has elevated the loser comb-over cokehead prodigal son (Colin Farrell) to the top spot.
Moving on isn’t an option—not in this economy, as a chance encounter with an old friend now reduced to dishing out handies for cash makes perfectly clear—so the guys hit upon the idea of a hit, paying someone to kill their bosses. They don’t quite find a hitter, but they do find a ‘murder consultant’—Motherfucker Jones (Jamie Foxx), who advises them on the general criminal procedure, and eventually advises the strategy as used in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, where a pool of candidates rotate murders to help establish alibis. Considering that the three are far more enthusiastic than competent in the art of murder—and not really that enthusiastic in the first place—complications will, of course, ensue.
What’s worth noting about Horrible Bosses is that the majority of the comedy is not in the pitch, but, rather, in the chatter around it. Bateman, Sudeikis and Day are such a well-meshed set of gears comedically that the murder plot—in both senses of the word—is less important than their wavering and weaving around the edges of it, with asides about Ethan Hawke’s career, the to-do list before one flees to Canada and the etymology of obscene nicknames.
Also juicing the slender plot are the crazed, cartoony performances of Spacey, Aniston and Farrell. (The three ‘boss’ characters are not any better developed than, say, Elmer Fudd, Pepe Le Pew and Yosemite Sam—and frankly, they don’t need to be.) Spacey’s ice-cold shtick is clearly recycled from Swimming with Sharks, but Aniston’s predatory looker and Farrell’s swaggering sweaty dipshit (There’s a huge laugh when Farrell articulates his new management plan: “I want you to cut the fat around here ... I mean, start firing the fat people ...”) are both a lot more fun than they might have been.
Bateman’s particular skill set—the art of the pause, the blank stare setting up the punchline—serves him particularly well. Sudeikis’ Kurt is a warm, winning womanizer, even in minor touches like his voice dropping a few octaves when serious business is afoot. But it’s Day’s manic, ratty work as Dale that pushes the film the furthest in terms of flat-out comedy; while it’s not on the level of, say, Eddie Murphy in 48 Hours or Bronson Pynchot in Beverly Hills Cop, this more than anything is the film that will make Day a star. (The scene where Dale is cleaning up spilled cocaine and starts feeling its effects—already given away in the trailer—is a piece of comedic acting so fully invested it’s a little scary; your heart races in time with Dale’s.)
Horrible Bosses doesn’t feel ... complete, in an odd way; the climactic series of events closing out the film feel like they come a bit late and end a bit swiftly, as if the movie was both stretching the little plot it had and bringing the curtain down early. There’s one big, nasty surprise in the film—one that raises the stakes for the characters and audience—but it never sours the fun, or makes it impossible to laugh. Gordon shoots with verve and vigor and, more importantly, a nice sense of timing in individual scenes - while the film feels dawdling and then rushed, the mystery is that the individual scenes are tight, bright and clever, with meticulous timing.
Considering how much of American life revolves around work and wage, the number of truly great comedies about the workplace is fairly limited—probably because in America, pop culture is the lap dog that collaborates with management, not the watchdog that challenges it. The Apartment, 9 to 5, Office Space—Horrible Bosses doesn’t rank alongside those classics, but it is the kind of comedy that will benefit from a live, and lively audience around you forming a consensus of comedy as you watch it on the big screen. A mix of highly-polished comedy moments and workmanlike, get-it-done cinema, Horrible Bosses doesn’t pass its performance review with flying colors—it could have used a little more fine-edged satire in the place of its broad, blunt, slapstick—but considering how many other summer comedies deserve to be fired for cause and walked out of the building by security with their stuff in a filing box, it does the job well enough.