Horrible Bosses is the funniest comedy since The Hangover – the real Hangover, not this year’s lame sequel. In fact, it is everything you might have wanted a Hangover sequel to be. The outlandish premise is carried by an ideal cast, with Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day as friends plotting to murder one another’s irredeemably awful bosses – not what career-advice books usually counsel, but these poor guys’ powers of invention are a little bit skewed.
As the plot gets wilder and wilder, every apparent cul de sac leads to an uproarious new twist. Like The Hangover, Horrible Bosses makes no pretense to artistic ambition; it is a silly but clever summer comedy, as shrewdly played and hilarious as they come.
The characters are drawn in broad outline, but the cast make that work, with some roles natural fits and others against the grain. The film feels so seamless because the bosses are as well-cast as the tortured employees. Bateman, a master of underplayed comedy, is the buttoned down office slave angling for a promotion, whose sadistic company president – Kevin Spacey as the kind of droll, lethally wicked character he has perfected – berates him for coming in two minutes late, at 6:02 A.M. In the spirit of Office Space, Spacey’s character says things you imagine an awful boss is actually thinking, like “I can crush you.”
Sudeikis is a womanizer who loves his job as manager of a chemical company until the owner’s coke-head son takes over. The heir is played by Colin Farrell, in one of the film’s best smaller roles, with one of the world’s worst combovers.
And Day is a dental assistant madly in love with his fiancee but sexually harassed by his boss, played by Jennifer Aniston going a little too strenuously against her sweetheart image (everyone else makes it all seem effortless). If this were The Hangover, Day would be the screw-up Zach Galifianakis character; many of the scheme’s backfires are his.
Tortured to the breaking point, these guys are convinced they can’t get other jobs, and it is one of the screenplays’ intricate touches that we see why; among other reasons, there’s the example of a once-successful old pal reduced to offering hand jobs for $40 in a bar. (I didn’t say this was a polite film.) With blunt references to Strangers on a Train, they decide to criss-cross murder the bosses, with help from Jamie Foxx as an ex-con who turns down the job as hitman but says, “I’m going to be your murder consultant.”
The director, Seth Gordon, also directed the underrated Four Christmases, which has a similar flair. Both are lightly-skewering films that target the absurdities of daily life by starting with a completely real premise – family holiday visits or the near-universal day-dream of killing your boss – then gradually ratcheting the comedy up beyond the plausible. Characters actually die or are otherwise destroyed at the end of Horrible Bosses, but by then the victims have become so cartoony it hardly registers as a loss. This is pure, unbeatable comic escapism.