Horrible Bosses is going to invite comparisons to just about every other movie about rotten workplaces, but it acts best as a corollary to Office Space. Not because it’s on the same level as Mike Judge’s modern classic, but because both films are perfectly of their time, capturing a snapshot of the working world as it was or is. Judge’s film was about a man oppressed by boredom and forced to work overtime to update his company’s software for Y2K, a laughably empty threat even when the movie was made and a nice representation for the kind of banal paper-shuffling forced upon the protagonist. Yet the working men of Horrible Bosses aren’t fighting apathy, but evil, and they’re roped to their jobs because of the recession. Each one wants to escape a cruel manager, but they’re all forced to realize that the costs are too high and that they’d be worse off without their paychecks. Twelve years ago, you could make a movie about a guy trapped at a job because he couldn’t think of anything better to do. Now, he’s stuck because there’s nowhere else to go. That’s a huge change, and the timeliness of the subtext gives Horrible Bosses a nice edge and the ability to go to dark, weird places, which it does in entertaining and often hilarious ways.
And there is, to be sure, an emphasis on entertainment. Despite the presence of Kevin Spacey as one of the titular bosses, this isn’t Swimming With Sharks: this is a dark-ish comedy that flirts with twisted ideas but still stays sweet enough to work as a breezy adventure. Chalk it up to the fact that the screenplay is the first feature outing from writers known for, let’s say, modestly aimed sitcoms: Michael Markowitz wrote for “Becker” and Jonathan M. Goldstein worked on “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” while John Francis Daley is best known for acting in series like “Freaks and Geeks” and “Bones.” There’s an innocent, rookie-season vibe to the way the script hits the necessary beats, but it’s no less pleasing for being obvious, thanks to the charismatic performances and able direction. Granted, there’s nothing revolutionary here. Horrible Bosses will not change the face of cinematic comedy. It does not point a new direction in storytelling, nor chart a path to new heights of joy. It is, rather, a simple, nimble, consistently pleasing comedy that gets a laugh with almost every joke, and it does so while playing around with everything from revenge fantasies to action. It gets its job done with energy and charm to spare.
The script revolves around three men dealing with awful bosses: Nick (Jason Bateman) is a financial manager constantly belittled by company president Dave Harken (Spacey); Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) is an accountant tormented by his company’s cokehead owner, Bobby Pellit (Colin Farrell); and Dale (Charlie Day) is a dental assistant working for a sexually aggressive doctor, Julia Harris (Jennifer Aniston). After some brief introductory scenes pushed along by voice-over narration (another first-time screenplay flag), the boys meet up for drinks to share horror stories of office humiliation that’s compounded by their inability to leave. Nick’s boss dangles the promise of a promotion only to take it away, Kurt’s boss blackmails him into firing people at random, and Dale’s boss tries to have sex with him atop unconscious patients. Their talk soon turns to hypothetical rambling about how great it would be if they could get rid of their bosses permanently, and that moment is enough to plant the seed for Kurt to wonder if it would be possible to actually kill their bosses.
The absurdity of that leap — from hating one’s boss to committing murder — isn’t exactly ignored, but it’s not dealt with that truthfully, either. This isn’t larceny or embezzlement, this is full-on homicide, and Kurt’s growing resolve to bump off his boss is as dark a one as you’ll find in a comedy. But the film pulls it off by keeping a sense of wackiness in the plan, as if this is a camping trip that just got a little out of hand. It also works because the bosses are cartoonish exaggerations of real human cruelty, which makes the gang’s attempts at retaliation similarly fantastical. Farrell’s ridiculous bald cap is clue enough that this is all meant to happen in a vaguely surreal world that’s not quite ours. That’s one of the film’s many strengths: to be just crazy enough to inhabit a fictional realm but just grounded enough to connect with real sentiments about working in a down market. Director Seth Gordon proves again that he can make a sharp, fluidly paced film when he’s working with the right material. Breaking from the style popularized by the Apatow school, Horrible Bosses runs a relatively svelte hour and 40 minutes, and Gordon keeps the story scooting along nicely. His debut feature was the documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, and he’s also helmed episodes of “Parks and Recreation,” “Modern Family,” and “Community.” Only the odious Four Christmases stands out as the clunker on his c.v., but hopefully he’ll be able to work with better scripts going forward.
As the story progresses, the men try to formulate ways to off their bosses, going so far as to visit a bar in a rough neighborhood and start asking around for hit men, an awkward move that leads them to the services of Motherfucker Jones (Jamie Foxx), a recently paroled con who pledges to work for them as a “murder consultant.” It gives precisely nothing away to say that their plans don’t really work out the way they were intended to: this isn’t a thriller, but a comedy of errors. The film’s also buoyed by the effortless chemistry between the three leads. These are all skilled comedic actors playing their polished personas to the hilt: Bateman is sardonic and worrisome, Sudeikis is affably lecherous, and Day is manic with a soft side. In other words, these are the personalities we’ve seen worked to a fine gloss on (respectively) “Arrested Development,” “30 Rock,” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” And that’s not a bad thing at all. They’re all hilarious throughout, a neurotic mix of goofiness and idiocy and deep-down yearning for something better. These performances aren’t about cunning, but about playing to the back of the cineplex with skill and precision. The men are perfectly comfortable together, playing off each other with ease and grace it’s impossible to tell if they’ve forgotten the cameras are there or if they’re hyper-aware of how great they are at mugging for them. Throughout, there’s a tonal sense of the film not just as story but as an experience that’s aware of its own audience, right down to the way the movie ends with a smash cut to credits before popping right back with a blooper reel. This is an escapist tale of fighting back against your boss even when common sense, the economy, and your own best interests tell you not to. The movie knows you’re watching, and it’s a pleasure to do so.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.