When I first watched The Hangover, I remember there being a niggling sense of disbelief stuck in the back of my head for much of the film. It wasn’t the tiger in the bathroom or the stolen baby mind you; just about all manner of hijinx is fair game in my book when it comes to gross-out comedies. No, what stuck out was how implausible it seemed that the three leads were in anyway friends. I tried to imagine how these guys might hang out when not forced into some crazy adventure but nothing would come to mind, and without that relationship, the buddy-comedy nature of the premise was lost. Instead of cohering, the character archetypes (the straight man, the good-looking one and the wild card, who in this case starts as the new guy before being accepted in the group by film’s end) conflicted so heavily that instead of creating a great comedic unit it broke down into a kind of masochistic-pissing contest to see who could endure the worse abuse for a chuckle.
When looking at Horrible Bosses, a new comedy starring Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day, the characters fill moulds similar to those of The Hangover but with a far more palpable chemistry. There’s little back-story explaining why these three mid-level employees meet up at the bar every night to complain about what sort of humiliation their bosses have put them through that day, and it’s not needed. Instead of trying to outdo one another, the characters bounce off each other with the kind of ease that’s earned from being friends with someone for many years, and it makes sense that they can go from joking to slap-fighting and back again in the same scene without a moment’s pause. Establishing this kind of relationship is paramount to the film’s jovial tone but it's also the foundation of the film's premise, as it has to be believed that these three would trust each other enough to make a pact to commit murder, the intended targets of said murders being each character’s titular boss.
It’s a pitfall-riddled premise, as you need extremely likeable leads and monstrously unsympathetic villains if you want to mine the act of taking another person’s life for humour, and although the plight of the affable leads is clearly identifiable, the film goes out of its way to reinforce the latter requirement almost to a fault. One boss (played convincingly by Colin Farrell), a raging cokehead, plans to dump chemical waste in Bolivian rivers, while another is a vamp trying to black-mail the recently engaged Dale (Day) into an affair. Finally, there’s Kevin Spacey as an unflinchingly awful sales president who’s even more narcissistic and psychotic than Spacey was as Superman nemesis Lex Luthor. While it's commendable that the film wants to get into its potential filled plot quickly, the early scenes with the bosses often feel more like table setting than comedy.
That being said, once Horrible Bosses get's moving, there's rarely a dull moment. Beyond an overt callout to Strangers on a Train, there's a vaguely Hitchcockian complexity to the way the plan of the working stiffs unfurls before inevitably going awry and it's refreshing to see a comedy in which just about every scene is plot relevant. It also helps that the film is often just as funny as one might hope. The ineptitude of the would-be assassins offers a myriad of great gags alone and the aforementioned table dressing pays off nicely one way or another, often in the form of puke, ass and dick jokes. The film certainly earns it's R-rating but never relies on shock value as a substitute an actually joke and some of the funniest moments needn't require the R-rating at all; Day is a masterfully capable physical comedian and can someone turn a car seat into a great prop.
The strength of the script is largely brought out by the impressive star-power Horrible Bosses has at its disposal. Spacey makes for a surprisingly intimidating villain and Aniston impresses for the first time in a decade thanks to playing a character so wildly against type it almost makes her litany of shoddy romantic comedies over the last few years justified. And while Bateman and Sudeikis both hold their own, they're both pretty much dwarfed by Charlie Day. Day's made a name for himself playing the chubby idiot in supporting roles and on TV and it would be easy to blame him for playing some variation of the same character if that character weren't so incredibly funny. He finds the right pitch for every punch line, from mumbling excuse making to a yelling style that's most accurately described as squawking, but he never brings his character past the point of caricature, there's always some kind of twisted logic behind his many screw-ups. It’s a great performance and shows signs of being a breakout role akin to the kind Zach Galifianakis had in The Hangover (to stretch that comparison a bit further).
For as ominous as the set-up may be, there are bound to be some disappointed that the film doesn’t attempt to go darker. In the hands of the Coen brothers, the final product would no doubt have been a grimmer and more surreal morality play, which in itself sounds intriguing and may have perhaps resulted in a better movie, but certainly not a funnier one. It is summer after all and director Seth Gordon focuses strictly on maximizing the laughs per minute ratio while maintaining the film’s lively pace. It’s as if the director set out to prove that he could make a film that, if absolutely nothing else, will make you laugh, a modest goal perhaps but a completely satisfied one. After a brisk 100 minutes, rather than finishing with sentimentality or sequel baiting, the film does what it does best and goes out on a joke. Gordon knows the score; if you want your comedy to be remembered, just remember to be funny first. It may sound counter-intuitive, but even with all the body fluids, violence and murder, Horrible Bosses is a clean, efficient summer comedy at just about its finest.
4 out of 5