Best friends Nick Hendricks (Jason Bateman), Dale Arbus (Charlie Day) and Kurt Buckman (Jason Sudeikis) have one thing in common: their bosses are making their lives a living hell. It happens to the best of us. After all, can't just about everybody remember a time when they, too, had to deal with a monster of a supervisor, someone who abusively wielded around his or her managerial power without even a vague attempt to respect and/or relate to their employees? It's easy to understand how these three guys feel in the abstract, but less so when getting to know them on a more personal level. "Horrible Bosses," directed by Seth Gordon (2008's "Four Christmases
") and written by Michael Markowitz, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, doesn't dig deep enough. Amusing in spots and appropriately twisted in others, the film is nevertheless treated as more of a larkish piffle than a legitimately dark comedy interested in exploring the indignities of workplace strife. Its characters are all of the one- or two-dimensional variety, the trio of protagonists given to slight variations on the same downtrodden bottom line and rarely glimpsed outside of their jobs or hanging out at restaurants and bars. Where do they live? What are their hobbies? Why are two of them in their late-thirties and single, without any mention of a past that isn't related to their profession? Who knows? As for the bosses of the title, they are caricaturized plot devices, each one wretched in their own way, but universally, yes, horrible.
At financial firm Comnidyne, Nick Hendricks has been slaving away for eight years under the mighty fist of company president Dave Harken (Kevin Spacey), even missing out on saying good-bye to his dying Gam-Gam in order to make a deadline. He has every reason to believe he's about to be promoted to Senior VP, but then Dave pulls the rug out from under him by announcing that he'll be taking over the position himself. For Kurt Buckman, an account manager at chemical company Pellitt and Son, he joyously works for kind patriarchal owner Jack Pellitt (Donald Sutherland) until the poor man's heart suddenly explodes in his chest. Jack's no-good, dipshit, cokehead son Bobby (Colin Farrell) takes over for him and promptly begins threatening Kurt's place in the company if he doesn't start firing the overweight and disabled. And then there's Dale Arbus, a dental assistant with few professional alternativeshe's on the registered sex offenders list for a misunderstood altercation at an empty nighttime playgroundwho is constantly having to deal with the lecherous, harassing advances of dentist Julia Harris (Jennifer Aniston). When Julia introduces blackmail into the equationshe wants him to sleep with her or else she'll lie and tell sweet fiancee Stacy (Lindsay Sloane) that they've been having an affairit's the final straw. With the help of a "murder consultant" by the name of Motherfucker Jones (Jamie Foxx), Nick, Kurt and Dale begin plotting how to kill their bosses while making it look like accidents.
It's easy to call any movie uneven that doesn't quite work to its fullest capacity, but "Horrible Bosses" is particularly disjointed as it switches back and forth between the exploits of each friend and their respective boss. Like three short films with only the most shallow of storylines, they waver between earning the occasional laugh, trying too hard to be shocking, and testing one's patience as the meat of the narrativethe preparations to snuff out the despicable higher-upstakes too long to get underway. Since director Seth Gordon is playing things strictly for humorthere is very little pathos or earnestness involvedand the screenplay he is working with hasn't the cajones
to delve into truly black comedic territory like, for example, 1998's ballsy, underrated "Very Bad Things," there is a distinct deficit of danger in the proceedings. Yes, at least one of the bosses does not, in fact, make it to the end credits (how and why should be left for the viewer to discover), but in the ongoing desire to treat Nick, Kurt and Dale as nice guys the movie chooses to take few chances. For guys who spend their time performing criminal activities on their way toward killing three people, they remain surprisingly likable. Their reckless actions as they do a poor job covering their tracks does, however, call into question their intelligence (or lack thereof).
Jason Bateman (2010's "The Switch
"), Charlie Day (2010's "Going the Distance
") and Jason Sudeikis (2011's "Hall Pass
") are up to the task of carrying the film while, in a lot of ways, having to play straight men to the over-the-top personalities around them. There is no getting around the plainly obvious attempt to position them as the next big-screen wolf pack when a slow-motion shot of them walking toward the camera is nearly a replica of a scene from 2009's "The Hangover
," but they are actually more down-to-earth than those insufferable, emotionally stunted children posing as adults. Bateman is watchable in just about anything, Sudeikis is much more affable than he's been in the past (he often comes off as smarmy on "Saturday Night Live"), and Day gets the best material alongside standout Jennifer Aniston (2011's "Just Go with It
"). As Julia Harris, D.D.S., Aniston goes for broke, fearlessly spitting out the sort of acidic dialogue and explicit come-ons that would make a streetwalker blush. More than that, hers is the most intriguing character. It would be interesting to learn more about her, and how such a beautiful, successful woman came to be such a ceaseless sexual deviant, but the script doesn't care. Julia is a punchline, not a person, and it's a shame because Aniston deliciously steals every one of her too-few scenes.
As big-headed hotshot Dave Harken, Kevin Spacey (2009's "The Men Who Stare at Goats
") could play this kind of role in his sleep he's so good at it. When his lovely wife Rhonda (Julie Bowen) throws Dave a surprise party, his reaction when he walks in the door as the partygoers jump out and DeBarge's "Rhythm of the Night" begins to blare on the stereo is one of the film's most sneakily funny moments. By comparison, Colin Farrell (2009's "Crazy Heart
") is underused as Bobby Pellitt, getting no more than an extended cameo with just a handful of scenes. Farrell has never looked or acted like this beforehis atrocious comb-over hairpiece is a sin against humanitybut the actor's willingness to have some fun is never quite fulfilled by the writing. Making a better impression with not a lot of screen time is Jamie Foxx (2009's "The Soloist
"), next to Aniston the highlight of the picture as Motherfucker Jones. His profane name alone is taken humorous advantage of, but Foxx makes the part his own besides. The use of 1999's "Snow Falling on Cedars
" as the payoff to one ongoing story point is an unexpected comic high point.
"Horrible Bosses," like the recent "Bad Teacher
," is a comedy difficult to get excited about. It's R-rated, but still feels rather inhibited in the way it aims to adhere to mainstream sensibilities rather than truly let loose. The characters aren't afforded lives outside of what relates directly to the plot, so they stay emblematic ciphers rather than wholly fleshed-out beings. There are a few solid chuckles to be had, but twice, if not three or four times, as many instances where the jokes fall flat and the attempts to offend feel easy and desperate. As a workplace satire, 1999's "Office Space
" is infinitely more clever and insightful. And, when the movie ends, it does so with little fanfare or point. "Horrible Bosses" keeps the pacing up even amidst an inordinate amount of starts and stops. The idea of permanently doing away with awful bosses, though, shouldn't be delivered with as much blandness as it is here. Whether it might have meant delving into grimmer thriller territory or bending toward more courageously incendiary humor, the finished cut screams out for a clearer, firmer, fuller vision.