In Seth Gordon’s crude and financially successful 2011 black comedy, the three horrible bosses in question are played by A-listers Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston and Colin Farrell, and they seem to be having a whale of a time playing characters riddled with obnoxious characteristics. It’s a good job, too, because without them Horrible Bosses would be little more than 90 minutes of Hangover-style shenanigans involving a trio of male friends who are old enough to know better (it’s always a trio of male friends who are old enough to know better), shot through with a lazy, unpleasant undercurrent of misogyny and racial stereotyping that makes you wonder when Hollywood is going to finally realise that we’re way past the millennium now and such tired, re-treaded idiocy is best left behind in the 20th Century. Naturally the answer is they won’t while huge numbers of people continue to pay for the dubious privilege of watching and listening to it.
The three friends experiencing an intense dislike of their respective line managers are financial accountant Nick, dental assistant Dale and account manager Kurt (played by Jason Bateman, Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis respectively). Nick is overworked, overlooked and overbullied by his sadistic superior Harken (Spacey), Dale is being sexually harassed by nymphomaniac dentist Julia (Aniston) and Kurt must contend on a daily basis with the severely obnoxious cokehead Bobby (Farrell), who inherits his managerial position after the death of his kind, well-respected father Jack (Donald Sutherland, in a pointless cameo). (Spacey plays the same kind of character in the excellent black comedy Swimming With Sharks, which I recommend over this all day long. If you’re looking for office-based laughs Mike Judge’s Office Space knocks spots off it, too. So does 9 To 5.)
Unable to quit their jobs for fear of long-term unemployment, in order to alleviate themselves from the misery of their (middle class, well-off) day-to-day working lives the trio hatches an unlikely plan over a few beers: they will hire someone to kill their respective managers. They subsequently meet Jamie Foxx’s Dean ‘Motherfucker’ Jones – the character was originally going to be called ‘Cocksucker’ but Foxx felt it was a step too far – who tricks the three friends out of $5,000 by feeding their casual racism and allowing them to think he’s a murderer, before eventually giving them advice that doesn’t quite represent value for money (it’s lifted from Strangers On A Train).
Bateman, Day and Sudeikis create some good on-screen comic chemistry. The three leads appear together in many scenes in fairly neutral settings, such as houses, bars and cars, and they play off one another with some decent, sarcastic comic interplay. While I enjoyed this, far too often they default to immature crassness – squabbling about who would be raped the most in prison, for example – which is a shame as the sarcasm is funnier and the movie isn’t quite as offensive as it thinks it is. Nick and Kurt are essentially the straight guys here and Day takes on the madcap Galifianakis role – there’s always a Galifianakis role now – but his flustered, unpredictable presence begins to irritate as the film passes the half hour mark.
Although their characters are underdeveloped, the film comes alive when the three bosses are on screen; I’d have happily sat through a few more scenes involving their antics in the workplace (and a few less containing Day’s near-constant whining), even though not one of the three actors is taxed. Farrell clearly has a ball playing the coke-snorting, prostitute-loving martial arts fan Bobby, and there’s a permanent twinkle in Aniston’s eye as she delivers lines like ‘You’re gonna give me that dong, Dale’ with an otherwise straight-faced unflappability. Spacey isn’t required to pull up trees, either, but he does exactly what’s asked of him.
Unfortunately while Aniston’s sex-mad Julia is an exaggerated caricature she’s also totally indicative of the film’s attitude towards women. The only other female characters of note in the film are played by Julie Bowen (Harken’s wife Rhonda; defining (and only) characteristic: she sleeps around a lot and has sex with Kurt in a cupboard 30 seconds after meeting him) and Meghan Markle (Jamie, a briefly-seen UPS delivery girl who is leered at and complemented on her looks; she smiles complicitly). In fact, aside from Dale’s fiancée (Lindsay Sloane), I’m struggling to think of any other women in the film who aren’t portrayed in one way or another as nothing more than walking vaginas there to service the needs of the male characters. (“Speaking of entrapment, I’m gonna go see that girl about her vagina” Kurt says at one point. One of the movie’s worst lines.) They’re drawn simply as sex objects, and while generally comedies seem to be let off the hook for this kind of thing, allowing it to pass without comment just encourages it or deems it OK for the future. ‘Oh…lighten up, Stu, it’s just a comedy, just a bit of fun, it made me laugh…’. Nope, fuck that: the screenplay of Horrible Bosses is disappointingly stone-age in its approach and the writers – Michael Markowitz, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein – presumably have the intelligence to do better.
Just as bad is the racial stereotyping. The black people in Horrible Bosses only reside in the shitty part of town*, and though Foxx exhibits some excellent comic timing as Motherfucker Jones, the implied notion that dozens of 70s throwback characters like him sit around waiting for the familiar scenario of vaguely square white men awkwardly trying to assimilate themselves into the hood ought to have you rolling your eyes. The movie also falls back on the old gag about a foreign worker having a name that white Americans – or at least the three halfwits at the centre of this story – cannot possibly pronounce. I mean…really? That kind of joke is like a rancid turd suddenly dropping in from the 1970s; it wasn’t funny then, and in this day and age it just seems extremely weak. Not to mention the fact it stinks to high heaven.
The saddest thing is that, this kind of rubbish aside, some of the writing is sharp and Horrible Bosses is quite amusing. There are misfires, of course, but it did make me chuckle on a number of occasions, even when I knew I shouldn’t really be chuckling. The performances, too, more than do justice to the material; although the casting decisions are all fairly obvious – Spacey as a smarmy arsehole, Bateman as the white-collar everyman, The Wire’s Wendell Pierce as an irritated, exasperated detective – they work perfectly for the purposes of this movie.
Your enjoyment of Horrible Bosses will, like mine, probably depend upon the extent to which you can ignore, or temporarily forget about, the uglier elements of the writing. It’s not a groundbreaking film, but there’s just enough mileage in the premise for an hour and a half (though its success has led to the inevitable sequel, with Christoph Waltz drafted in as a new dastardly superior, in cinemas later this year). It’s just a shame that the writers felt the need to fall back on tired old jokes and depressing stereotypes, as there are signs that the team behind Horrible Bosses could have made a smarter, unpredictable (albeit less-popular, presumably) comedy. At times it’s impossible to see the emasculation of the three main characters here as a bad thing; unfortunately the film relies heavily on the audience’s hope for a reversal in their respective situations. Oh well.
Directed by: Seth Gordon
Written by: Michael Markowitz, John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein
Starring: Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis, Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston, Colin Farrell
Running Time: 94 minutes