REVIEW: Horrible Bosses Works Harder Than It Needs to for Its R-Rated Laughs
Generally speaking, it's good that we're seeing more R-rated comedies. There's nothing less raunchy -- or less funny -- than implied raunchiness, gags that aren't allowed to go the distance because they might corrupt a minor. Comedies that don't have to fit into PG-13 constraints allow writers, directors and actors to give us characters who are free to talk the way real people talk and do the things real people do.
Or not. Characters in R-rated comedies often say stuff just because they can. In Seth Gordon's Horrible Bosses, for instance, an unapologetic horndog played by Jason Sudeikis sees a picture of a babe and announces that he'd like to "bend her over and show her all 50 states."
Who says anything like that in real life? No one does, and as it turns out, the line becomes its own meta-joke in the outtakes that cap off the picture: The fact that no one would ever say it becomes the selling point. But there are enough other gags in Horrible Bosses that seem to exist not because they're all that funny, but because the R rating will allow them. Maybe we've gotten to the point where comedies are, consciously or otherwise, reverse-engineered to be as outrageous as possible, instead of simply written to make us laugh.
Though that's not to say Horrible Bosses is never funny. Jason Bateman, Charlie Day and Sudeikis play three buddies working in different fields who have one problem in common: Each of them works for a terrible person. Bateman's Nick toils day in, day out for a sadistic ballbuster (Kevin Spacey) who teases him with promises of a promotion, only to turn around and give himself a fat raise. Sudeikis' Kurt actually has a sweetheart of a boss (played, all-too-briefly, by Donald Sutherland); his problems start when the boss's cokehead son -- Colin Farrell, in a bodacious combover -- takes over the company. And Day's Dale is a meek dental assistant who just wants to settle down with his pretty fiancée; instead, he has to fend off the daily advances of his boss, played by Jennifer Aniston, a sexual predator who keeps announcing that she likes to "fool around at work." You could call her a vagina dentista.
The guys regularly get together over drinks to complain about how much they hate their superiors, and somehow their harmless carping turns into a three-way murder plan. Their search for a hit man takes several wrong turns -- one of them is a fairly hilarious bit involving Ioan Gruffudd in a 007 suit -- before leading them to Jamie Foxx, who claims he can help them if they give him a briefcase full, or semi-full, of money.
As it turns out, they have to do most of the pre-murder legwork themselves, which means lots of breaking and entering: When the three bust into Farrell's tacky bachelor abode, Sudeikis marvels, "It's like we stepped inside the mind of an asshole." Over at Spacey's swankier digs, Bateman is attacked by a stripey, cougarish housekitty. And Day -- whose lines tend to come out in a breathy, spacy squeak -- fills in the gaps with his doofy malapropisms: When one of the guys mentions Strangers on a Train, Day thinks he's talking about "that Danny De Vito movie," Throw Momma from the Train.
Aside from having murder on their minds, these three are a lot more well-behaved than the Hangover guys. If anything, Horrible Bosses -- which was written by Michael Markowitz, John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein, from a story by Markowitz -- comes off as The Hangover lite, not that that's a bad thing. Gordon, director of the 2007 documentary King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, as well as the unmemorable 2008 comedy Four Christmases, may want to be transgressive, but only a little bit: He pulls back from the edge in a way that suggests he knows the edge isn't all it's cracked up to be. Horrible Bosses may drag in places, but it's never mean-spirited or nasty. Even its most reprehensible characters -- like Farrell's superbly nasty autocrat, whose first act upon taking over the company is to order Sudeikis to fire all the fat people -- brim with perverse joie de vivre.
Still, much of the movie's potty-mouth dialogue feels forced and strained, particularly the stream-of-consciousness bawdiness of Aniston's character. Nothing Aniston does is funny because she's working so hard at it all. There's something calculating and prissy about the way she plays the good-time gal who's not afraid to be sexually aggressive. It's a performance with something to prove, and that's never funny.
In fact, the best bits in Horrible Bosses -- aside from an inspired backstory involving Foxx and a certain purloined Ethan Hawke movie -- have less to do with outlandish dialogue or situations than they do with the three lead actors' willingness to go the way of the Three Stooges. They bump into one another, they smack one another, they bang into things and fall down. It's fun to watch Bateman, in particular, cut loose. Bateman is a wonderful comic actor: The characters he plays tend to be on the cerebral side, and they're often more than a little cranky. In other words, they think a lot. Here, Bateman's character gets plenty of chances to react rather than ruminate. And his quicksilver timing comes in handy when that crazy cat comes bounding out of nowhere and bounces off his shoulders with maniacal glee. The flash of terror on Bateman's face is almost painfully funny, because the cat has startled us almost as much as it has him. It's one of the more G-rated moments of Horrible Bosses, the That Darn Cat portion of the show. And it's a measure of my own dirty mind that I just spent 10 minutes trying to come up with an off-color euphemistic joke to end this review; Gordon, on the other hand, took the high road and resisted.