It requires no great critical insight to figure out what’s wrong with Horrible Bosses, a foul-mouthed new comedy of male resentment directed by Seth Gordon. The problems can be enumerated with a prim scowl and a wagging finger. The movie, in addition to being expectedly vulgar, is noisy and preposterous, and its humor flirts with racism, goes steady with misogyny and pretty much marries homophobia. There are guns, drugs, several references to sex acts involving urine, and gross insults — unless they are extravagant compliments.
So here is the evident puzzle: Horrible Bosses is also frequently very funny. One reason is that it does not bother to cut its coarseness with a hypocritical dose of sweetness or respectability. Nor, however, does it make a big show of being provocative, of pretending that its forays into offensiveness are acts of bravery. It takes the ordinary human traits of stupidity, selfishness, lust and greed (and also stupidity), embeds them in a human condition that is confusing, unfair and also stupid, and turns the whole sorry spectacle into a carnival. The laughter is mean but also oddly pure: It expels shame and leaves you feeling dizzy, a little embarrassed and also exhilarated, kind of like the cocaine that two of the main characters consume by accident.
The scene of their hapless nose-candy binge exemplifies this movie’s spirit. On the one hand, the guys — Dale (Charlie Day) and Nick (Jason Bateman), along with their friend Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) — have broken into a house to do recon for one of three murders they plan to commit. This is a bad thing to do. On the other hand, there is something endearing about their utter hysterical ineptness, and their excursion into vice and criminality seems as innocent as it is desperate.
Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros
The desperation allows Horrible Bosses to graze ever so lightly against some unpleasant social realities and to find a glimmer of class consciousness in an avalanche of crude gaggery. Dale, Nick and Kurt are all stuck in terrible jobs, at the mercy of employers whose power is absolute and arbitrary. “I own you,” says Mr Harken, Nick’s smug, sadistic boss, played by — one guess! — Kevin Spacey with all the lethal smarm he brought to Swimming With Sharks and more. Sure, it’s an easy bit of casting, but so is Colin Farrell as a twitchy, amoral playboy and Jennifer Aniston as a sexy dentist.
I mean a sexually predatory dentist, though the distinction is lost on Kurt, who thinks she’s hot. But he doesn’t work for her. Dale does, and her constant barrage of innuendo and solicitation — she’s as subtle as a plumber making a house call in a porn film — makes him uncomfortable. The sheer tastelessness of this situation is what makes it work, coupled with its almost surreal improbability. Dale, in addition to being a devoted almost-husband (his briefly glimpsed fiancee is played by Lindsay Sloane) is a ball of rodentlike, idiotic nervous energy.
He’s the designated annoying-dimwit-friend, Zach Galifianakis shrunk down to Gilbert Gottfried size. As his pals, Bateman and Sudeikis do not exactly break ground. Bateman is uptight, anxious and asexual, firing darts of weary sarcasm with his eyes, while Sudeikis is a genial, excitable doofus who also happens to be catnip for the ladies.
Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros
The sexual politics of Horrible Bosses are less obnoxiously retrograde than those of, oh, The Hangover: Part II, partly because of Aniston’s comic skill and partly because they are beside the point.
To the extent that there is a point, beyond sheer silliness — which is fine on its own, by the way — it has something to do with the unfairness of work at a time of high unemployment, when everything seems to be tilted in favor of those who already have power. Harken teases Nick with a phantom promotion, making a cruel game of his underling’s modest ambitions. Farrell’s feckless character, who inherits the company where Kurt works, is a monster of irresponsibility. Dale is subjected to escalating harassment and blackmail.
These predicaments are as exaggerated as the bumbling homicidal response they inspire, but then again, in times like these, what are abused and humiliated workers going to do? Join a union? Go to court?
That would be a different movie. This one is content to make a show of the kind of skills that are unlikely to get anyone very far in the workplace but that are nonetheless essential to the functions of farce. The verbal humor is more a matter of riffing than of delivering neatly defined jokes, but the timing of the cast — notably including Jamie Foxx, as well as the others already mentioned — is impeccable. And Gordon and the writers, Michael Markowitz, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, allow the hilarity to build, escalate and swerve off course. You are in the hands of professionals, which means that, in the ways that count and even when it shouldn’t, Horrible Bosses works.
Directed by: Seth Gordon
Starring: Jason Bateman (Nick Hendricks), Charlie Day (Dale Arbus), Jason Sudeikis (Kurt Buckman), Jennifer Aniston (Dr. Julia Harris), Colin Farrell (Bobby Pellit), Kevin Spacey (Dave Harken), Donald Sutherland (Jack Pellit), Julie Bowen (Rhonda Harken), Jamie Foxx (Dean Jones), Lindsay Sloane (Stacy)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Taiwan Release: Today
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