Friday, July 8, 2011

Horrible Bosses: Rather horrible, all right

Horrible Bosses (2011) • View trailer for Horrible Bosses
Two stars. Rating: R, for pervasive profanity, crude and sexual content, and drug use
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.8.11

Imitation isn’t merely the sincerest form of flattery; in Hollywood, it’s a way of life.
After deciding to do away with their mean, conniving bosses, our three put-upon
heroes — from left, Nick (Jason Bateman), Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) and Dale
(Charlie Day) — seek advice from Dean "MF" Jones (Jamie Foxx), the baddest
cat in the city's worst neighborhood.

When some bottom-feeder unexpectedly made a fortune with Saw, within 12 months we were wallowing in the sewage of numerous quickie torture-porn imitations. A few years before that, American remakes of Japanese horror flicks were the rage. Want superheroes? These days, you can’t check out newspaper or online movie listings without encountering half a dozen Spandex-clad champions of justice.

Which brings us to vulgar moron comedies.

Judd Apatow and the Farrelly brothers have strip-mined this genre for several years, with results that have been uneven at best; every successful 40-Year-Old Virgin has been accompanied by lesser cousins such as Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Step Brothers and the ill-advised remake of The Heartbreak Kid. Superduds, all.

But the surprise success of 2009’s The Hangover really put Hollywood on notice, and now — two years later, which is about as quickly as perceived trends can be acted upon — we’re paying the price. This year already has brought us swill such as The Dilemma, Hall Pass and the pallid sequel to The Hangover; fairness dictates that I acknowledge enjoying the pleasant surprise of Bridesmaids, which boasts the same pedigree.

Still to come, in the next few months: The Change-Up and Our Idiot Brother.

And the topic of today’s conversation: Horrible Bosses.

More than anything else, this weak excuse for a comedy hints at an insubstantial, one-sentence concept pitch by no-talent hacks attempting to get the attention of a gullible (desperate?) studio exec: “I know, I know; let’s do a potty-mouthed comedy retread of Strangers on a Train ... you know, the one where they swap murders!”

And thus a movie is born. Oh, joy.

I’ll give director Seth Gordon credit for attracting A-list talent; quite a few high-caliber actors wander through this limp noodle. Trouble is, they’ve little to do; as is typical of a clumsy script, individual scenes seem stitched together more of necessity than logical narrative progression.

Writers Michael Markowitz, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein haven’t even tried, and the proof is most visible in the blank character slates with which our three protagonists must struggle. Watch this flick — if you must — and then ask this key question: Do we know anything about Nick (Jason Bateman), Dale (Charlie Day) and Kurt (Jason Sudeikis), aside from the fact that each has a horrible boss? Anything about their private lives? Hobbies? Dietary preferences? Whether they’re kind to animals?

It’s not just a trivial question, because it relates to the issue of audience identification: Do they deserve our sympathy? Are they entitled to the karmic justice demanded by this premise? Are they even decent guys?

Impossible to say, because these dweebs exist only to suffer indignities, deliver one-liners and lurch from one Three Stooges-like crisis to the next. Yes, a few isolated scenes are quite funny, but almost by accident; I find myself struggling to find nice things to say, rather than being genuinely motivated to do so, by virtue of having been impressed.

(To continue this little exercise, consider, in great contrast, how much we did know about the women played by Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph and Melissa McCarthy, in Bridesmaids. The more we understand the characters, the more we relate to their pain and frustration, and — here’s the important part — the more we laugh at their weaknesses and predicaments. This is Scripting 101, folks; it ain’t rocket science.)


Nick, a career guy on the rise, answers to Dave (Kevin Spacey), a sadistic monster who dangles the possibility of promotions he never intends to grant. Dale, a dental assistant, endures sexual harassment at the hands of Julia (Jennifer Aniston), his voraciously carnal boss. Kurt, initially comfortable at a family business run by its progressive founder (Donald Sutherland), winds up in hell when the guy keels over and the company lands in the untrained hands of the man’s greedy coke-head son, Bobby (Colin Farrell).

Aniston’s Julia talks dirty and dresses provocatively, baring as much of her chest as possible, without crossing the line that would turn the actress into an Internet download champion. But as also was the case with Cameron Diaz, in the recent Bad Teacher, Aniston’s filthy dialogue lacks the zesty oomph that would truly sell her scenes; we simply never buy the notion that Julia truly is a dirty, dirty girl.

The entire weight of Farrell’s “performance” rests with his appearance; thanks to added weight, a crazed expression and the world’s worst comb-over, he’s almost unrecognizable. But that’s a pretty thin frame on which to hang an entire character, and — allowing for a few crass remarks — we don’t get much else. Bobby is a hedonist who wants to bleed his company dry in order to fuel his more broads/more blow lifestyle. Next...

Spacey, thankfully, brings the necessary brio to his performance, a more enthusiastically rapacious nod to the role he had in the 1992 film adaptation of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. Spacey’s Dave is thoroughly, gleefully sadistic: the sort of guy who wouldn’t waste time pulling wings off flies, if he could yank the legs off kittens and bunnies. There are no lower depths to Dave’s depravity, and — as this film continues — Spacey gets progressively meaner and more audacious.

If everybody else here were operating at Spacey’s level of energy — and assuming a script that provided a channel for such vigor — Horrible Bosses would be the laugh riot it desperately wants to be. As it is ... no.

As for the “good” guys, Kurt is a babe hound solely defined by his libido, which is guaranteed to go off at the most inopportune moment. (Not hard to anticipate where that will take him, with Aniston’s Julia in the same film.) Day’s Dale does nothing but whine and screech like a chipmunk, with a voice that revives unpleasant memories of Bobcat Goldthwait’s similarly high-pitched, shatter-the-wineglasses falsetto. Ugh.

Bateman, once again, is stuck in a bland, nice-guy sort of almost-part: the closest thing this story has to a voice of reason. Nick is the long-suffering one, and we wonder how he has tolerated his two friends, lo these many years ... not that it really matters. Bateman isn’t granted a shred of character depth, leaving Nick as little more than a black hole on the screen.

Various crises unite these three idiots in the shared desire to kill their bosses; they eventually wind up accepting advice from Dean “MF” Jones (Jamie Foxx), the baddest-looking dude in a bar nestled in the worst part of town. Foxx has fun with his role, which has hidden depths and represents this script’s only genuine surprise.

Brian George also makes an impression, as the voice of Kurt’s car navigation system. And that says a lot, when one of a so-called comedy’s funniest bits comes from somebody never seen on camera.

Although the set-up and initial execution are clumsy and contrived, Gordon somehow gets his film to stagger into life during the final 15 minutes or so; the script also delivers a modest “be careful what you wish for” moral. You’re therefore likely to walk out with a higher opinion than the first hour warrants, which I suppose is better than opening with the best stuff and going downhill from there.

Still, this is damning with faint praise. Although a bit more amusing and not as reprehensibly scatological as, say, Hall Pass, these Horrible Bosses definitely aren’t worth your paycheck.

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