Horrible Bosses Dir. Seth Gordon

[Warner Bros.; 2011]

Styles: black comedy
Others: The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, Very Bad Things, Thank You For Smoking

Despite a fairly sickening central premise and a barrage of plot twists that don’t hold up except in the moment, Horrible Bosses is a very funny movie. It’s tight, it lands its jokes, and it doesn’t reach for more than it is. The movie isn’t perfect, but for anyone who’s recently seen Zookeeper, it may appear, for a weekend, to be the saving grace of comedy on film. Its strength is simple: it’s full of comedy pros (without Kevin James), and it was put together by Seth Gordon, a director of greater-than-average skill. Gordon became famous in 2007 with an uncommonly hilarious documentary, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, about the Machiavellian politics endemic to the world of arcade game championships. And as adept as he was at reediting the lives of actual people into a comedically potent good-vs-evil struggle, he’s at least as skilled here, changing the paradigm to desperate-vs-evil, but keeping the struggle just as funny.

The lazy title notwithstanding, Horrible Bosses is a movie that thrives on its comic dexterity. Its stars are wide awake, which may seem like a lame compliment to give an actor until you look at Will Ferrell sleepwalking through three out of every five major comedies each year. Like it or not, and probably the former, Horrible Bosses is a movie crammed with outsized personalities vying for control of the screen. On one hand, you’ve got Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day, relative newcomers eager for their first hit. On the other, Jason Bateman, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Aniston, and Colin Farrell, “old” pros chomping at the bit to play assholes and dipshits in a project that won’t end up embarrassing them as much as the usual crap they star in. Without a director as good as Gordon, the egos may have taken over. Luckily for fans of sharp comedy, all the famous faces pay deference to the movie, and they play it like they know what team they’re on; the energy and flow come from a cast that wants the ensemble to work and the result to be funny.

But there’s the plot: standard black comedy with the addition of the current economic troubles swirled in (lately, this is necessary for any comedy that wants to please a large audience). Sudeikis, Day, and Bateman are Applebee’s-loving Everymen trapped by the job market into putting up with relentless shit from their power-tripping superiors. They reason, convincingly, that they would gain an undeniably higher plane of happiness if their respective overseers were relegated to the Hells they seem to have come from.

Besides the essential grossness of murder fantasy, the movie’s biggest flaw is that this dream of happiness is so consistently undercut by the backwards-bending plot, which insists on the bosses — Spacey, Aniston, Farrell — being so cartoonishly execrable we can’t help wanting to see more of them.

It’s a bit unfair to give away whether the Everymen can bring themselves to carry out murder, but it’s giving nothing away to say that, for awhile, they fully intend to. As a passing joke, most people can probably relate to this desire. But of course the movie’s biggest joke is to ask what would happen if the desire became a reality.

Horrible Bosses gleefully brings its heroes down to the level of their enemies. Is it saying that this is what American life does to its middle class? That there are no options left for disenfranchised workers? Well, no. There are plenty of people much worse off than the Everymen, who clearly make more than enough from their horrible bosses to live comfortably. All the film really does is put the question What stops people from killing the total dicks in their life? through a winding plot, and then allow the energy of its stars to take over, resulting in a funny, stylish movie. Gordon’s talent shouldn’t be placed in the upper echelon among Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder, Howard Hawks and Wes Anderson (at least not yet). But he certainly stands apart from the lazy rabble of frat boys, the Apatow-Philips-McKay clique, who’ve tacitly agreed that craft is superfluous to movies if they have at least one huge comedy personality riffing with abandon. Gordon belongs somewhere above the middle, among Edgar Wright and James Gunn. Not quite brilliant, but a cut above the prevailing wind.

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