In a summer that has inundated audiences with heinous sequels and awful comic book adaptations, it’s ironically refreshing that a film with the word “horrible” baked right into its title would end up being absolutely fantastic. Horrible Bosses is wryly hilarious from start to finish, a summer comedy that relishes the zany and ridiculous but approaches the madcap material with cleverness and wit. It’s a big-joke comedy that is also in on the joke, a welcome respite from the onslaught of self-serious action duds and dingy hologram 3-D imagery.
Perhaps labeling a film centered around pre-meditated murder “giddily infectious” is oxymoronic, but this one has a way of making a dark premise feel lighter than air. I smiled during the film’s opening sequence, and it gradually built to a sustained goofy chuckle that quite often gave way to deep belly laughs. Horrible Bosses builds a carefully controlled chaos that simultaneously lends believability to its high-wire premise and blunts the impact of its decidedly morbid implications. In a film centered around hate, there is nothing to be found but joy.
A great deal of that joy can be credited to the cast, which is populated from headliners to cameos with unbelievable talent — talent that is not merely brought on to mug for the camera and devour scenery, but which adds unique verve to even the smallest of moments. Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, and Jason Sudeikis play the three jaded souls at the center of the film, and Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston, and Colin Farrell play their bosses, each of whom is so blisteringly appalling that…well, they deserve to die. And so our heroes hatch a plot to kill all three of them. Such a premise is dicey at best and disastrous at worst, but these actors develop such seamless chemistry, such fine-tuned rhythm, that all dangers fade away and we become instantly engaged with the resulting product of what seems to be the happiest movie set of the year.
Each of the bosses is particularly monstrous in his or her own special way, and the actors who embody them dig in with a vigor we really haven’t seen before, even from stars as accomplished as these. Spacey has played hard-ass bosses before, but he reaches an unexplored level of vicious narcissism as the smug company president who grooms Bateman to become his VP and then sabotages him with one cruel manipulation after another. Farrell goes over the top in ways we’ve never seen as the absolutely gross new boss who snorts cocaine in the bathroom, brings prostitutes into the office, and forces underling Sudeikis to fire people based on physical appearance — even though this particular boss’s biggest offense is most certainly his tacky combover. Aniston might have the most fun of all, playing against type and against her history to deliver one of the happiest psychotic nymphomaniacs to ever grace the screen. The ways in which she harasses Day — who is loyal like a puppy to his fiance and just wants to be left alone — build to uncomfortable new heights every time Aniston appears on screen.
Wonderful as all these elements are, the film is not quite perfect. Such frenzied comedic material leads to some frayed screenplay edges, and while the story packs a satisfying amount of turns and surprises, the end result adds up to less than the sum of its parts. It would’ve helped to open the film — which takes on the properties of a chamber drama between the three central characters – up to a few more intriguing characters, including a female or two who actually isn’t a sex-crazed bitch. And while the film is a near-constant laugh blast, it lacks the psychological depth that colored in the edges of the summer’s other great comedy, Bridesmaids.
And yet the film works just about seamlessly as it is. A major part of that success is the film’s tone, which is especially crucial to a plot like this. Credit is due not only to the spirit of the actors but to director Seth Gordon and screenwriters John Markowitz, John Francis Daley, and Jonathan Goldstein. Gordon, who debuted with one of the most entertaining documentaries of recent years, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, and experienced an uneasy transition to narrative features with Four Christmases, has very quickly found his footing as a comedy director. His timing as an orchestrator of big comedic moments is impeccable. That timing, applied to this very witty screenplay, which in turn is brought to life by actors who imbue every scene with unexpected kink and irresistible pathos, results in that most difficult of cinematic feats: comedy that works on nearly every level.