In Horrible Bosses, three put-upon workers conspire to bump off one another’s evil employers. Yes, it’s a variation on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 classic Strangers on a Train, but it’s such a venerable framework upon which to hang a story that the familiarity of the tale only adds to the fun. Besides, we haven’t seen a blackly comic reiteration of this magnitude since 1987’s Throw Momma from the Train.
Our stars—Jason Bateman (“Arrested Development”), Charlie Day (“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”) and Jason Sudeikis (“Saturday Night Live”)—are the very definition of comic ringers. None is a marquee name exactly, but each has proven adept at pulling more than his own body weight in comic support. Here, the guys hit humor gold as a trio of working stiffs who have reached their limit with their respective bosses. Nick Hendricks (Bateman) is a middle manager stuck taking abuse from corporate shark Kevin Spacey (at his most sadistic since Se7en). Dale Arbus (Day) is a happily engaged dental hygienist forced to reject the raunchy daily come-ons of his nymphomaniac boss Jennifer Aniston (having a ball with the four-letter words). Kurt Buckman (Sudeikis) is a peon accountant cowed into doing the dirty work for party-boy idiot Colin Farrell (in a comb-over, for God’s sake!). Spacey, Aniston and Farrell deserve their fair share of the kudos here for their nasty, vanity-free performances. All three deliver lovably awful characters, with Aniston emerging as the surprise favorite. (Seriously, why has she never worked blue before?)
The film milks the standard repertoire of sex jokes, filthy language and anal cavity references. Unfortunately, like the recent Cameron Diaz vehicle Bad Teacher, the biggest criticism of this raunchy black comedy is that it pulls its punches. Look back on films like Bad Santa or There’s Something About Mary or War of the Roses and you'll see films that were unrestrained and unrepentant. Horrible Bosses doesn’t push the envelope so much as place a hand firmly against it and make fake grunting noises. It’s dirty and it’s rude, sure, but the script (from a couple of TV writers and that sweetly dorky psychologist on “Bones”) is secretly a softy. Dale really does love his shy fiancée, everybody gets his or her just desserts, and none of our protagonists really has the stones for outright murder.
If the script only hints at a braver, edgier comedy than it delivers, it at least finds a way to tap deeply into today’s economic fears. The worldwide uncertainty about job stability is deftly transformed into the sort of comic horror story in which employees are too terrified to raise concerns about environment-polluting, coke-snorting, sexually harassing bosses. Better to hire a freelance murder consultant than to post your résumé on Monster.com, eh?
This summer movie season has seen an influx of layoff-related humor—from Tom Hanks’ Larry Crowne to Will Ferrell’s Everything Must Go. Hell, most of Transformers: Dark of the Moon’s plot was predicated on Shia LaBeouf’s inability to land a job. Obviously, something’s in the air. Horrible Bosses may be nothing more than a conventionally crude, lad-magazine-humorous take on a serious subject. But maybe it’s just what the doctor ordered. Buy a ticket, have a laugh and then head back to the unemployment office.