Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Dead or Alive: HORRIBLE BOSSES


As directed by Seth Gordon, Horrible Bosses is a dark mainstream studio comedy, or rather, as dark as a mainstream, broadly appealing R-rated comedy can get. It’s a movie that has three friends, each with a particularly monstrous boss, deciding almost on a whim and with a Hitchcock reference, that the best way to make their lives easier is through the deaths of their bosses. The most twisted aspect of the film is the way it not only had me rooting for three would-be murderers, I also was hoping they’d go through with it.

The most surprising aspect of the film is how completely untwisted the premise plays out. The characters here are so very thinly sketched, so nonexistent outside the narrow parameters of the movie’s action that the stakes of the plot never register. Going into the movie, my mind conjured up thoughts of 9 to 5 remade in the style of the Coen brothers’ bloody good Burn After Reading. This isn’t quite that movie I was anticipating, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have a moderately good time with what it is.

The film spends quite a bit of effort setting up the horribleness of the bosses, so much so that it begins to feel like “horrible” is perhaps an understatement. Monstrous Bosses, perhaps? I suppose the script by Michael Markowitz, John Francis Daley, and Jonathan Goldstein needed to find a way to excuse the central premise, to make us realize that murder would be a perfectly viable option, but surely in extreme cases such as these, merely gathering evidence and then going to the authorities would be a much safer option. No matter, these are some extremely bad work environments and these aren’t the brightest characters to begin with.

Kevin Spacey plays the president of an office where he takes particular delight in torturing an ambitious office drone played by Jason Bateman, all but promising him a promotion, forcing him to work late, work on the weekends, and even working instead of saying goodbye to a dying loved one. Then, to top it all off, there is no promotion. Jennifer Aniston plays a dentist who sexually harasses her favorite dental hygienist, the befuddled and uncomfortable Charlie Day. She goes way too far when she reveals that she misuses the anesthesia in order to have her desires. Meanwhile, the factory manager Jason Sudeikis doesn’t mind his boss played by Donald Sutherland. The problem is the boss’s son (Colin Farrell, giving a great but criminally shortchanged comedic performance), a cokehead and an idiot who invites, in his dad’s absence, a collection of prostitutes into the office to help him sniff up his stash.

The three employees are played rather charmingly and the bosses, two of the three playing deliciously against type, are quite scary. The six of them (seven when you include Jamie Foxx’s “murder consultant”) seem to elbow each other off the screen for their brief moments in the spotlight – this is a superfast 100 minute comedy that seems to end soon after it’s really started – but they all improve on a screenplay that often feels like nothing more than a somewhat inspired screenwriting exercise. Take three characters and find a way to get them into and out of a murder plot in as few steps as possible.

Watching the movie, I found myself laughing and smirking and leaving the theater reasonably diverted. I was, however, almost immediately wishing that the film had pushed just a bit farther. There’s a feeling that the filmmakers set the bar fairly low and, though I suppose they cleared it, is that enough? The movie exists on one level – a broad, crude, slightly misogynistic, slightly cheap level – and although it succeeds on its own terms, I can’t help but wonder just how good the movie could have been if it had set better terms for itself. This could have been a great, dark, timely stab into current American fretfulness over the job market. After all, director Seth Gordon’s first film was the hilarious King of Kong, a documentary about arcade game high scores that showed a much keener eye for the strands of competition and hierarchy that exist in even the most frivolous of societies. As it is, the film’s just a light, forgettable shot of artificial catharsis masquerading as the real thing.

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