So, remember what I wrote about Bad Teacher, and how its title basically encapsulated my opinion of the awfulness of that movie? Well, like the wise Missy Elliot once said (both backward and forward!) flip it and reverse it, because Horrible Bosses is not horrible at all. The dark comedy about a trio of friends who plot to murder their bosses (imagine a celluloid three-way between 9 to 5, Office Space and Strangers on a Train) is actually surprisingly clever, satisfyingly twisted and blessedly free of the dick jokes and projectile body fluids that many recent buddy comedies (ahem, Hall Pass) sub in for real comedy. Director Seth Gordon (known largely for documentaries The King of Kong and Freakonomics) brings a quirky, deadpan sensibility to the proceedings.
We meet each of the three protagonists through voice-overs in which they introduce us to their titular lackluster supervisors. Business drone Nick (Jason Bateman) slaves for power-hungry control freak Dave Harken (Kevin Spacey, tapping back into the slick-suited sadism of the Hollywood producer he played in Swimming With Sharks). Dale (Charlie Day) is a dental assistant who suffers unrelenting sexual harassment at the hands of nymphomaniac dentist Julia (Jennifer Aniston, unleashing more four-letter words than a Monday crossword puzzle). And Kurt (Jason Sudeikis), well, actually, Kurt loves his boss (Donald Sutherland). Unfortunately, Kurt’s boss has a fatal heart attack in the movie’s opening moments, leaving the family-owned chemical company in the hands of his irresponsible cokehead son Bobby (Colin Farrell, sporting a gut and a comb-over so bad you will completely forget all of those shirtless scenes in The New World).
After Nick is denied a long-promised promotion, Kurt watches his beloved company slide toward financial ruin, and Dale discovers compromising photos Julia took of him while under anesthesia—which she threatens to show to his fiancee unless Dale sleeps with her—the guys drunkenly hatch a plan to kill each other’s bosses, Strangers on a Train-style, aided by an ex-con (Jamie Foxx) with dubious experience and an unprintable nickname. This sets in motion a macabre screwball plot that unfolds in clever and unexpected ways, catapulting the would-be assassins into crises both existential and physical. The three leading men make a great comic trio, and Day, in particular, is a scene-stealer as the increasingly unhinged and man-handled Dale. As the bosses from hell, Farrell is depressing and hilarious, while Spacey is formidable and unsettling—Keyser Söze in loafers.
I take points off only for Aniston. Let me explain. It is not that she doesn’t commit to the role—if anything, she seems eager to shed her Friend-ly America’s Sweetheart persona, spouting porn-star dialogue without batting a curled eyelash. It’s not that she delivers a bad performance, either—she captures Julia’s screw-loose serenity perfectly, a cross between Kelly Bensimon on The Real Housewives of New York City and a deranged phone-sex operator. No, it’s just that the casting choice seems very deliberate, designed to shock (Jennifer Aniston said pussy!?!) rather than mesh with the rest of the film. As a result, I was hyper-aware of the actress, not the character. But it’s a small bone to pick in an otherwise surprisingly deft summer comedy—a breed as rare these days as a competent boss.