The Vanilla Pleasures of 'Horrible Bosses'

Neither ambitious nor inventive, the movie is funny nonetheless

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Warner Bros

Criss, cross… criss. That’s pretty much the three-syllable summary of Horrible Bosses, which takes the notorious murder-swap of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train and spins it into a tale of three Apatowesque buddies (that is to say, single child-men in their thirties) who decide to off one another’s, well, horrible bosses.

Nick (Jason Bateman) is a punctual, industrious, and acutely underappreciated office drone—a genealogically deracinated Michael Bluth—stuck under the thumb of a smug, bullying senior executive (Kevin Spacey, typecast yet effective). Dale (Charlie Day) is a happily-engaged dental hygienist forced to endure the escalating sexual predations of the only dentist in town who will hire him (Jennifer Anniston). Only Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) has a boss whom he likes—that is, until said boss suffers a massive coronary, and Kurt must kowtow to the man’s degenerate, coke-addled son (Colin Farrell, all but unrecognizable in a dank, wispy combover).

The three friends gradually recognize that their paths to happiness and fulfillment inevitably pass over the dead bodies of their employers. And so, after an unsuccessful effort to hire a hit man from the classifieds (his definition of “wet work” is not what they’d anticipated) they opt instead for a “murder consultant.” It is from this dubious specialist—an ex-con with a tattooed scalp and piratical goatee named Motherfucker Jones (Jamie Foxx)—that they get the idea of criss-crossed killings.

Like Danny DeVito’s soft but likable satire Throw Momma From the Train—which the movie is generous enough to name-check— Horrible Bosses doesn’t sink its teeth very deeply into its Hitchcockian premise. As an R-rated comedy, it is of course crass and profane to the requisite degrees. But it lacks the ferocity and tight plotting of The Hangover, on the one hand, and the urogenital excess and emotional curiosity of the better Apatow films on the other. The character who most pushes the envelope is Anniston’s lewd cougar—and, let’s face it, there’s only so far that the former Rachel Green is going to push.

But if Horrible Bosses is a relatively vanilla summer offering, that doesn’t mean it’s an unappetizing one. Until the somewhat deflated ending, the film bounces along wittily enough, with clever nods to Herbie the Love Bug, Jodie Foster, and Good Will Hunting, as well as what is doubtless the best punch line ever occasioned by Snow Falling on Cedars. There’s a gag borrowed from High Fidelity, and another from Annie Hall. Though the lead roles are a bit underwritten, the actors have an amiable chemistry, with Bateman in particular displaying his acute yet offhanded comic timing. It’s a slight pity, though, that Farrell’s foray into grotesquerie wasn’t granted more screen time; he gets almost as much burn in the outtakes that accompany the credits as he did in the preceding 90 minutes.

Horrible Bosses is not an ambitious film, nor a particularly inventive one, but it hits its mark more closely than plenty of movies that have aimed higher. It is perhaps no coincidence that the director, Seth Gordon, has spent the last couple of years directing episodes of some of the better sitcoms on television: Modern Family, The Office, Parks and Recreation. Like those shows, Horrible Bosses offers a reminder that adherence to formula may not be among the signal virtues of comedy, but—provided the jokes are funny—it’s no great vice either.

Related: From 'Network' to 'Horrible Bosses,' the Idiots in the Corner Office Endure

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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