A noir-comedy of neutered masculinity in search of revenge, Horrible Bosses pits three impotent workplace schlubs against their tyrannical bosses, whose crimes range from intimidation and blackmail to sexual harassment and all-around cruelty. For Nick (Jason Bateman), a financial trader, life is made miserable by Mr. Harken (Kevin Spacey), a conniving, domineering monster who takes pleasure from playing punishing tricks such as forcing Nick to down a glass of scotch first thing in the morning, and who leads Nick on with promises of a promotion that never materializes. Meanwhile, Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) is thrown for a loop when his beloved boss (Donald Sutherland) at a chemical company dies and the man’s insane cokehead son, Pellitt (Colin Farrell), who sports a crazy comb-over and a taste for Asian-massage parlor services, takes control of the business. And for dental assistant Dale (Charlie Day), his sinister supervisor is Dr. Harris (Jennifer Aniston), a smut-talking nymphomaniac who toys with Dale’s fidelity to his fiancée by confronting him in her office half-dressed and repeatedly throwing herself at him while patients lie knocked out in the chair, all come-ons that make Dale uncomfortable, but which his best friends Nick and Kurt predictably view as a far preferable problem compared to their own.
Discovering that another friend (P.J. Byrne) has been reduced to giving handjobs in public bathrooms after losing his job at Lehman Brothers (a bit of contemporary context for this saga of average Joes combating cretinous professional overlords), the threesome decide to kill their wretched bosses. From there, Seth Gordon’s visually blah tale detours into a realm of filmic self-referentiality that’s as familiar as its Judd Apatow-indebted depiction of fumbling, bumbling man-children struggling to act like adults. Determined to hire a hitman, Nick, Kurt, and Dale find themselves at a roughneck bar where scalp-tattooed Motherfucker Jones (Jamie Foxx) agrees, for $5,000, to be their “murder consultant” and suggests that they kill each others’ bosses, a scheme that immediately invites comparisons to Strangers on a Train (and, as Dale initially thinks, Throw Momma from the Train), an analogy that’s in line with a script that steeps itself in knowing pop-culture analogies. Horrible Bosses’s trio are morons who seek actualization and power via crime cinema, Law & Order and Good Will Hunting-like fantasies of murder, legal maneuvering, and heroism—a situation that’s also true in the case of criminals, who are ultimately revealed to be nothing more than bootleggers of bad Ethan Hawke movies.
On the frat-comedy tolerance scale, Horrible Bosses just about breaks even, partaking in easy jabs at Indian phone-support reps and casting women as driven only by their nether regions (be it Aniston’s libidinous lunatic or Julie Bowen’s promiscuous wife), and yet also pointedly mocking its protagonists’ reflexive racism toward African-Americans and avoiding the genre’s usual homophobia. Embodying stock levelheaded/horndog/wimpy wild-card roles, director Gordon’s leads share a natural wisecracking chemistry that isn’t quite sabotaged by Day’s Galifianakis-esque scene-stealing. And as its titular tyrants, Spacey, Aniston, and Farrell all revel in their over-the-top noxiousness, though the latter is mysteriously given short shrift even though—whether he’s nunchuking in silk pajamas, or blowing dust bunnies out his nose to a pharmacist in an inspired end-credits outtake—his performance is far and way the most novel and gonzo. That missed opportunity may be indicative of this latest guys-will-be-boys odyssey, though with a scene involving a break-in and a cat, Gordon’s film does manage to encapsulate its portrait of contemporary emasculation—and the way the movies both inform and underscore that weakness—with the year’s finest jolt scare.