In a classic Halloween episode of The Simpsons, Homer Simpson’s boss, Mr Burns, is depicted as a vampire. Homer is encouraged by his family to drive a stake through his heart. “Kill my boss?” he cries. “Do I dare live out the American dream?” Fantasies of dispatching your superiors is a near-universal theme – or at least, so hope the makers of Horrible Bosses, another high-concept studio comedy which registers moderately high on the chuckle scale but falls short of being especially memorable.
Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day are our three heroes here, who (as we establish in a dawdling first half-hour), work three jobs where they are respectively tormented by three nightmarish bosses. Kevin Spacey is a megalomaniacal CEO on an insalubrious power trip; Colin Farrell is a spoilt coke-addict douchebag with a creepy receding hairline; and Jennifer Aniston is an aggressive nymphomaniac who sexually harasses her male employee (though, as his chums observe, “yours doesn’t sound so bad”). Over a despairing beer, the three buddies make an unusual agreement: to kill their employers.
The opening act spends a little too long explaining all this, and throws in some rather clumsy exposition rationalising so as why murder is a more logical option than, say, quitting. Once that’s all sorted out, the main business of unlikely homicide is given centre-stage, allowing the comedy to stretch its legs. The three friends hire a ‘murder consultant’ (Jamie Foxx, in perhaps the best of the cameos of the movie), and semi-reluctantly plan their methods of execution, in a series of well-trodden comic setpieces.
There’s plenty to enjoy amid the overly-familiar pratfalling. Bateman, Sudeikis and Day make for a fine leading man trio, juxtaposing their everyman normality against their homicidal aims with an easygoing charm. Their combined improvisational skills provide some of the loudest laughs; Bateman’s understated wit plays well alongside Day’s excitable immaturity and Sudekis’ smooth-talking brashness.
But therein lies one of the movie’s biggest problems. With such likeable, charming leads, it is tricky if not nigh-on impossible to believe that these relatable average-joes could ever seriously consider assassination. The script attempts to address this (the aforementioned clumsy exposition) but never does so satisfyingly. It could be argued that these details are unimportant in such a broad farce, but it can’t be avoided: this is a gaping plot hole which inevitably serves as a distraction from the comedy.
It falls down elsewhere. Like many comedies, this film sadly suffers from Best-Bits-Given-Away-In-The-Trailer Syndrome. A fault of marketing rather than filmmaking, granted, but a joke simply isn’t as funny the second time you hear it. And, in common with the current trend of misogyny-tinged comedies in the Todd Phillips mould, this is a film disproportionately overpopulated with men. Once again, male characters dominate the screentime (and in Jason Sudeikis’ cases, are prone to highly implausible philandering), whilst female characters are relegated to either sexy and promiscuous, or fat and funny.
But if you’re willing to look past this occasional macho laziness (or indeed, if you’re the sort to embrace it), then Horrible Bosses is not without appeal. Once it finds its groove, the madcap comedy does pay off, which is owing to the chemistry and talent of the ensemble cast as much as anything else. It’s hardly unforgettable, but then neither is it lacking in sweetness or wit. And its cheerful message of murder may well find a sizable audience amongst beleaguered workers everywhere – the American dream nobody admits to.
Horrible Bosses is out in the UK on Friday.
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