In the wake of surprise hits like The Hangover and the monster success of its sequel earlier this year, American comedies are focusing less on the libidinous shenanigans of horny teenagers and more on adult men behaving very badly. The premise of Seth Gordon’s new film is one we have all fantasized about and has its roots in Hitchcock – a fact openly and rather amusingly acknowledged. Jason Bateman, Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis are three friends who regularly find themselves at the mercy of their overbearing employers. Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston and Colin Farrell aren’t merely pedantic micro-managers or slave drivers on a power trip, they are seriously disturbed and vindictive individuals. Therefore, the guys come to the only natural conclusion and agree to murder their horrible bosses.
The film’s biggest strengths are the bosses themselves, with Spacey, Farrell and particularly Aniston doing fantastic jobs of being sadistic, disgusting or grotesquely predatory as the storyline demands. However, because of their sheer exuberance our three heroes struggle to keep up and the film flounders whenever they are left alone on screen. Bateman, Sudeikis and Day are all fine comic actors with likable onscreen personas, but the film’s premise can’t help but make them appear weak and spineless. In particular, it is hard to sympathise with Charlie Day’s character who is “tormented” by having a scantily-clad Aniston throw herself at him at every opportunity, while purring some seriously perverted pillow talk. Make no mistake, Aniston’s horny dentist couldn’t be further from Rachel in Friends and after 20 films, she might finally be able to re-invent herself.
Spacey, on the other hand, recalls his stellar turn in 1994’s Swimming With Sharks as the ultimate boss from hell. He mercilessly bullies and manipulates Nick (Bateman), taking amusement in his suffering while dangling the empty promise of promotion to ensure he gets results. Colin Farrell sadly gets the least screen time out of everyone, but ensures that, while almost unrecognisabe under a fake pot belly and comb-over, he is unforgettable as the cocaine-addled son of Donald Sutherland, determined to run his father’s company into the ground. There is also an amusing cameo by Jamie Foxx as a sleazy underworld “murder consultant” whom the guys hire for his rather woeful advice on homicide.
Horrible Bosses is often very funny indeed and draws some surprisingly devilish performances from its cast, but nevertheless fails to commit fully to its premise. Gordon and his writers seem convinced their everyman heroes are more than ordinary, and are never willing to push them over the edge or have their bosses corrupt them absolutely. We are left yearning for more face time with Spacey, Aniston and Farrell and to see them gleefully crush more sad sack subordinates on company time. And any film that has me yearning to spend more time with the boss is clearly more horrible and manipulative than I had realized.