Horrible Bosses (Warner Bros.) doesn't quite qualify as a black comedy. Without the conviction to follow through on its own macabre premise, this underachieving little movie washes out to a muddy grayish-brown. A plot like this—three friends, fed up with their soulless, self-serving employers, decide to murder one another's bosses Strangers on a Train-style—requires a steel trap of a screenplay, in which an irreversible series of bad decisions leads to a farcical spiral of even worse consequences. Instead, Horrible Bosses, directed by Seth Gordon, lurches good-naturedly from scene to scene, a loose collection of skits that's content to cadge the odd laugh where it can. I expect more from a comedy, even a summer one. Why can't a movie aspire to make me laugh at least at every other joke (rather than, say, one in 10), and make sense in the bargain?
Nick (Jason Bateman, whose beleaguered deadpan carries every scene he's in) is a middle manager at a financial services company who's been slaving away for years under a sadistic martinet of a boss, David Harken (Kevin Spacey). When he's denied a long-promised promotion on the pretext that he was two minutes late for his usual 6 a.m. arrival time, Nick fantasizes about hurling Harken out a plate-glass window, to the high-fives of his colleagues. Over drinks with two friends that night, he's reminded that they, too, work for monsters. The happily engaged Dale (Charlie Day) works as a dental technician to a sex-crazed dentist (Jennifer Aniston) who harasses and humiliates him day after day. And Kurt (Jason Sudeikis), an accounts manager at a chemical company whose beloved boss (Donald Sutherland) has just died, must now serve as second-in-command to the boss's irresponsible cokehead son. (Played by Colin Farrell, who—though this is more a triumph for the costume department than the actor—looks amazing as a karate-chopping dweeb with a disgracefully bad comb-over.)
After pooling their limited funds to hire a "murder consultant" named Motherf---er Jones (Jamie Foxx, doing what he can with a small, one-note role), the boys decide to swap victims, thereby obscuring their apparent motives for the crimes. They "case" the houses of each others' bosses with more enthusiasm than skill, congratulating themselves on their sleuthing prowess even as they scatter hunks of evidence in their wake. Will these incompetent stooges have the guts to carry through with their murderous plans, and if they do, is there any conceivable possibility they'll get away with it?
What pleasures Horrible Bosses has to offer come from these second-act scenes of poorly executed reconnaissance. Bateman and Day accidentally spilling a huge box of cocaine at their target's glitzy nouveau-riche crib, then getting high off the dust cloud they raise trying to vacuum the shag carpet? That's funny—even if it is intercut with laugh-free counterpoint shots of Sudeikis in his target's bathroom, sticking toothbrushes and other toiletry implements up his butt.
The writers of Horrible Bosses—Michael Markowitz, Jonathan Goldstein, and John Francis Daley—should have realized that the heart of their screenplay was the discrepancy between the guys' actual degree of badassery and their warped perception of it. When the shambling dude comedy of this middle section gives way to an action finale involving car chases and police interrogations, the movie sputters to a halt.
If the jokes were funny enough, I might've been willing to don a pair of the blinders this movie seems to put on when it comes to gender, race, and sexuality. "Which one of us would get raped first in prison?" Bateman and Sudeikis demand of Day, clearly vying for the honor. The movie seems to want to have its politically incorrect cake and eat it, too; there are scenes that mock the protagonists for assuming that all black people are thugs and all women sluts, even as the script merrily functions on those same assumptions.
Jennifer Aniston's character, the nymphomaniacal dentist, is the most egregious instance of this disingenuity (though Aniston plays her with amusing gusto, clearly relishing the break from being nice). Spacey's and Farrell's bad-boss characters, while broadly sketched, are recognizable types with comprehensible motivations. Aniston's spray-tanned vagina dentata dentist resembles no person, real or fictional. If she were shown to be a sex addict who hits on every man she meets, the character might make some sense, but why is this attractive woman wasting all her sexual firepower on a single shrimpy employee?
When it comes to the three central male characters, Horrible Bosses seems afraid to own its meanness. The film loses its initial burst of wicked energy as it rushes to assure us that, really, these homicide-plotting schmoes aren't such bad guys after all. But what's the point of a black comedy that doesn't go for the kill?