In my opinion, Seth Gordon is a comedy director to watch. He made a few short films before breaking through in a big way with the documentary The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Dollars in 2007. His follow-up, Four Christmases, was a big-star romantic comedy that was worth a try, even if it shrinks in the long shadow of Gordon’s debut. He then went on to direct episodes of Community, Parks & Recreation, The Office, and Modern Family, which pretty much covers almost all of the best comedies on television, and also co-created a fun, short-lived series called Breaking In. I’m well at the point where I’ll check out a movie based on his name.
So now, Horrible Bosses, directed by Seth Gordon from a story by Michael Markowitz and a screenplay co-written by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley (a.k.a. Sam Weir from Freaks & Geeks!!!)
Well this is going to be a short little review here, because there’s really only ever one question that counts with a comedy, which is, “Is it funny?” Did I laugh? Yeah, and frequently. Horrible Bosses has an admirable joke-to-laugh batting average. The premise, where three likable losers plot to murder their unlivewithable bosses, is an instantly compelling one. Sure, it’s reminiscent of Strangers On A Train and its loose remake, Throw Momma From The Train, but the characters are aware of that, and not in an annoying self-referential way either. And the cast is uniformly terrific, starting with ace deadpanner Jason Bateman (always clutch with a reaction shot), likeable horndog Jason Sudeikis (in a much more agreeable rendition of his similarly-geared character from Hall Pass), and shrieking “hamster” Charlie Day (from FX’s It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia), and continuing to a murderer’s row of great evil bosses, Kevin Spacey (as a motherfucker from hell), Colin Farell (as a cokehead philanderer sleazebag), and Jennifer Aniston (as a sexual predator, basically).
Are they all funny? Definitely. Did I laugh? Several times.
Do I have a few reservations? Yeah. Overall, I liked and would recommend the movie, but if you want to hear the reservations, read on.
Basically it comes down to this: In the end, in my heart, I never really bought into the premise, as executed. The script, direction, and performance of Horrible Bosses plays well with the more questionable notions it raises – namely, that these three generally decent guys would ever seriously conspire to murder, that anyone would turn to Jamie Foxx as “a murder consultant”, that anybody would even complain about Jennifer Anistion sexually harassing them – but ultimately it didn’t sit right with me all the same. The reason for that is, because I, as the audience, never wanted what the three main characters wanted, which is to see those boss characters dead. Spacey is a great villain, playing a role he’s absolutely played before, in Swimming With Sharks, Glengarry Glen Ross, Casino Jack, and that serial killer movie which shall remain nameless. Farrell has rarely had a chance to be funny, but he’s as deft a comedian here as he was in In Bruges, He throws off the badass pretty-boy thing entirely to look and act utterly horrible in a totally hilarious way, and of all the characters, he’s the one who’s hardly in the movie enough. And Aniston… hey, I’m already a fan, but there’s new stuff happening here. She’s cruelly sexy, but also bold and perfectly-pitched and completely foul-mouthed, maybe more than any of the male characters. It’s a great comedy performance, regardless of being so much fun to look at.
That’s also a problem though. I’m supposed to want, anywhere in me, to see these characters dead, and I don’t, not for a second. They’re the characters who keep the movie alive, who lend it whatever asshole glory it attains. Not every comedy needs to make an audience want what its characters want, but in a black comedy like this one, it helps. Think of Throw Momma From The Train. Think of what makes that movie effective and funny. That lady was scary! (Even if you end up liking her too.) I feel like Horrible Bosses could have been even better if the bosses went further, if they were just a couple inches meaner. I’m not sure exactly how to quantify this, but it’s a question of tone, and it’s not easy business. Horrible Bosses generally has the right tone, but in the crucial area of hating the bosses, or more exactly, loving to hate them, it didn’t work for me personally. Spacey and Farrell are having too much contagious fun, and Aniston is doing the same, and is too damn good-looking to boot.
More troubling on a personal level I wasn’t comfortable with the frequent usage of the word “bitch” to describe Aniston’s character. Defenders of this terminology can shrug off my objection if they want, but I’m prepared to die on this hill. Horrible Bosses doesn’t have many female characters: There’s Charlie Day’s fiancée (a non entity), Sudeikis’s “pregnant” coworker (essentially one extended fat joke), Farrell’s two Asian playmates, and Julie Bowen as Spacey’s wife, who isn’t more than one note. Jennifer Aniston plays the movie’s only real female character, and she’s introduced with huge white letters naming her “BITCH” and then referred to as such several more times throughout the movie. Look, I’m not calling this movie misogynist, because I don’t believe it is, but it ain’t exactly pro-lady either. I don’t personally make a habit of calling women “bitches” and I don’t have much respect for guys who do. There are more creative ways of describing female characters, and I would have preferred to have heard some. It’s not as if these writers and performers aren’t proficient enough with language to have come up with other terminology. I know this is basically a question of taste, but in this case, I think my taste is just plain better.
But overall, I had fun with the movie, certainly enough to recommend it. The situations the characters get themselves into are generally fresh and unpredictable, and the energy of the three leads is a lot of fun. Most modern comedies are driven by lone wolves or duos, but there’s a classic comedy symmetry to trios. Bateman, Sudeikis, and Day make a solid trio, and their buddy-banter makes many of the movie’s best moments. And there’s an intelligence behind Horrible Bosses’ engine and direction: It’s one of the few convincing recession comedies of the past few years. Why do these guys hang onto their jobs so long? Why don’t they just quit? Well, because jobs are hard to find. Makes sense. I think that the best movies, even the comedies (especially the comedies), have this level of thinking behind them, or at least can stand up to this line of interpretation. How much does a comedy engage in its cultural moment? The more it does, the more resonant it is, the deeper and more appreciated the laughs. Horrible Bosses is a good distance from perfect, but in its best moments, it brings real, genuine, familiar, earned laughter. Which brings me back to that one pivotal question. Which is why you probably will like this movie. Maybe even more than I did.