There’s a second season episode of Seinfeld where George Costanza reaches his breaking point. After his boss refuses to let the real estate agent use his private bathroom George throws a temper tantrum and quits.
He realizes belatedly that he doesn’t have a Plan B. He can’t immediately find a replacement gig. So he humbly returns to work a few days later acting as though his big freakout never happened.
Another bad idea.
Then, with the assistance of pal Elaine Benes, George slips a Mickey in his boss’s drink at a company function.
I thought about that particular story while watching Horrible Bosses, an extraordinarily pitiful black comedy released in the summer of 2011. In the film, three old high school friends (Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, Jason Sudekis) frequently bemoan their miserable experiences at work. I had my own miserable experience watching this tasteless trash.
Investment broker Bateman has been willingly taking shit for eight years from Kevin Spacey naively thinking it will somehow lead to a major promotion. (Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t.) Basically recycling the psychotic character he played in Swimming With Sharks, Spacey is a sadistic stickler. He’s only happy when he’s cruel. (He also thinks his wife is having multiple affairs. He’s not completely off-base on this point, as it turns out.) Sometimes I wondered if he realized he was acting in a comedy since Spacey’s performance fails to generate a single laugh (not counting one amusing facial expression in the post-credit outtakes).
Despite being the first one in the office every morning and the last one to leave at the end of the day, Bateman can’t do anything to please him. Showing up two minutes late is cause for a private scolding. Tricking him into downing a whole glass of old scotch in his office well before happy hour gives him an excuse to call him a drunk in front of his co-workers. And he can’t have fun on the weekend because Spacey drowns him in extra work.
Meanwhile, the annoying Charlie Day is an engaged dental assistant who has to constantly fight off the sexual advances of an overly lascivious Jennifer Aniston. (Does she know Whatley from Seinfeld? They would definitely hit it off.) Complicating his dilemma is that he’s a registered sex offender who really needs this job. (He got caught peeing outside in a children’s playground after drinking too much in a nearby bar when no one was around.) And Aniston is threatening to ruin his relationship if he keeps refusing her pornographic come-ons. (She has compromising photos on her tablet that look far from consensual.)
At first, Jason Sudekis has a mostly ideal situation working at a responsible chemical company. (Only in the movies, right?) He has a competent, supportive boss in Donald Sutherland. But after he suddenly dies of a heart attack (you can see it coming a mile away), Sutherland’s idiotic, masseuse-lovin’, coke-addicted son (a terribly miscast Colin Farrell with a paunch and bad combover) takes over and his nightmare begins. Those poor Bolivians.
During one of their many communal commiserations, Day wonders why Sudekis and Bateman don’t just quit. Then, an old high school pal who hasn’t been the same since he lost his job with Lehman Brothers two years ago shows up wishing he could kill his former bosses for ruining his life. (He’s now reduced to prostituting himself to anyone who will pay for “handies”. To be fair, his rates are reasonable.) After he gets kicked out of the bar, the three amigos appear to resign themselves to remaining unhappily employed.
But after Sudekis “hypothetically” suggests they off their superiors, shortly thereafter, a real agreement is reached. Day locates what he thinks is an online hitman they plan to meet in a hotel room. Unfortunately, “wet works” isn’t code for killing people. It’s a gay kink involving urine. That’s typical of the level of comedy we’re dealing with here.
Desperate for someone to help them out they’re approached by misleading ex-con Jamie Foxx outside a bar in a tough neighbourhood. But he wants 5 G’s before making a commitment. However, after he gets the money, he suddenly decides to just be a “murder consultant”. He suggests they make the killings look like accidents. (Good one, genius.) Plus, in order to avoid suspicion, rather than having Bateman kill Spacey, Day kill Aniston and Sudekis kill Farrell, they should switch things up. As a result, the lads decide that Bateman will take out Farrell, Day will eliminate Spacey and Sudekis will assassinate Aniston instead.
Foxx also advises pre-murder stakeouts so they can study their bosses’ daily routines in order to discover previously undetected vulnerabilities. But they take it further by breaking and entering. They sneak into Farrell’s bachelor pad through an open garage door one night where they learn that he collects a lot of useless crap and foolishly leaves his stash of cocaine lying around. Before they leave, Sudekis steals Farrell’s cell phone and leaves his, um, scent on some of his personal hygiene products.
Because Day is a total screw-up (he’s the one who unwittingly contacts the professional urinator online and foolishly drops Farrell’s box of coke on his carpet), he’s designated the outside lookout while the two Jasons sneak into Spacey’s lavish home. A weird shrine to his cat (who keeps popping up unexpectedly freaking out the duo), this new arrangement reaps dividends when Spacey unexpectedly returns from his nightly jog.
Pissed off by Day’s presence and for his spontaneous act of littering, Spacey’s angry confrontation goes terribly awry when he suddenly has an allergic reaction to the peanuts in Day’s snack. Fortunately, he has an adrenaline needle on him. To the absolute horror of the two Jasons who watch helplessly from an upstairs window, he repeatedly stabs Spacey with the needle until he finally calms down. (Because his dopey comrades failed to show him what Spacey looks like, he has no idea who he’s helping.) In the middle of this madness, Spacey’s wife (Modern Family’s Julie Bowen) arrives. Considering his deep mistrust of her fidelity, not to mention his rigid personality, her relief that he isn’t dead isn’t terribly believable.
In their eagerness to escape, the two Jasons accidentally leave behind Farrell’s cell phone which sets in motion a chain of events that pretty much derails their original plans.
From the very beginning, the tone of Horrible Bosses is all wrong. As a result, there’s almost nothing funny here. The film’s idea of a black comedy is to mainly rely on dumb gross-out humour, including an astounding number of rape jokes, rather than make any kind of clever comic statement. (Fearing possible jail sentences for their criminal ineptness, the two Jasons and Day openly debate who’s more “rapeable”. Really.)
The first laugh, courtesy of Jason Bateman, doesn’t happen until about 80 minutes into the picture and even then, it’s just a quick, sarcastic one-liner. (Day’s phone sex technique really is abysmal.) The few remaining funny moments happen during the closing credits blooper reel. (Jamie Foxx is funnier when he screws up.) A stunning disappointment considering the high profile names here.
I was particularly offended by the Aniston storyline. Imagine if she was the harassed assistant and Day was the predatory dentist. Would anyone be laughing then? Besides, Seinfeld did a somewhat similar storyline with Whatley that was far funnier and less cringy. (Come to think of it, there are a couple of other things that feel cribbed from that show: Foxx’s criminal past, the fat woman mistaken for being pregnant.) Like Spacey and Farrell, I didn’t laugh at anything she says or does.
The lack of intelligence is glaringly apparent at almost every possible turn. At one point, our dimwitted heroes don’t even realize they’ve left behind Farrell’s cell phone. (Once it disappears, it’s never mentioned again.) It never occurs to them that that might be the reason the overly suspicious Spacey pays him an unexpected visit. (Spacey literally has it in his hand and plays the Carl Douglas ringtone to Farrell that a shocked Bateman doesn’t pick up on even though he has an excellent view from his car.) And why would they decide to spy on their bosses’ homes from the comfort of their own vehicles? License plates can be traced, dummies.
I get it. They’re supposed to be stupid. But they’re not funny stupid. Nor are they worth rooting for. The shallow, womanizing, anti-fat, homophobic Sudekis is charmless and ignorant. Bateman’s passive/aggressive act isn’t amusing. And the feminized Day (whose childhood dream was to be married and who openly weeps while watching The Notebook) is just plain irritating. Sometimes I wondered if he was trying to channel The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi when he raises his voice which he does way too often.
How bad is this movie? Even a cameo from Bob Newhart can’t generate a laugh. And he’s usually comedy gold. (His frequent guest appearances on The Big Bang Theory prove he hasn’t lost his timing at this late stage of his long career.)
Roger Ebert was fond of saying, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it’s about it.” Could Horrible Bosses have worked with a sharper, darker, more incisive screenplay? Unless some brave soul decides to remake it down the road, we’ll never know. On second thought, never mind.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, July 4, 2015