Horrible Bosses Sings the White Man's Lament
There's a scene in Horrible Bosses in which Jennifer Aniston, playing a dentist who habitually sexually harasses her weakling male hygienist (Charlie Day), repeatedly says the word "pussy." Her character is trying to intimidate his, while the filmmakers attempt to shock the audience with the spectacle of this lady rom-com specialist dropping slang for vagina. But it's not shocking to hear an adult woman say "pussy" in an R-rated movie. What's shocking is that this intimidation gambit works: Day's Dale is so afraid of Aniston's Julia that hearing her refer to her own intimate anatomy sends him into convulsions of revulsion.
Horrible Bosses, directed by Seth Gordon, is a comedy about how our tough economic times have destroyed white-collar, white-male masculinity. This is more or less the same subject taken on by Larry Crowne, the equally middling Tom Hanks film that opened last week, except Gordon's film fancies itself a blackly funny revenge fantasy.
Dale, painted as the helpless victim of a sexually hostile supervisor, is part of a troika of high school friends—also including chemical company accountant Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) and unspecified corporate drone Nick (Jason Bateman)—who, at fortyish, are each facing intractable career obstacles. Kurt loves his job and his immediate boss, who promptly dies, leaving the company to his cokehead son (Colin Farrell). Nick works for an asshole taskmaster (Kevin Spacey) who keeps dangling a promotion and then yanking it away. The three put-upon employees regularly meet for drinks to commiserate, and one night they have too many and decide the only way up the career ladder is to eliminate their bosses.
As Gordon sleepwalks through the montages and set-pieces that will get our boys from drunken violent fantasy to clean-handed happy ending, the key "joke" becomes that these guys aren't too upstanding to kill, but merely too chickenshit and incompetent. That, plus the fact that there's no indication that offing their current bosses will actually make these guys' lives any better, means that Horrible Bosses is missing the energy that would come from legitimate rage.
The film's three screenwriters include TV actor John Francis Daley, of House and Freaks and Geeks; Jonathan M. Goldstein, a writer/producer on the Shit My Dad Says sitcom; and Michael Markowitz, a producer on Becker. This team's credits speak volumes about Horrible Bosses' tone and tenor. This is middling TV material, almost comforting in its bland predictability but rarely actually laugh-out-loud funny and never truly dark or daring. The few zingers that land seem momentarily juicier than they really are. In a two-scene cameo, a knowing Jamie Foxx delivers the kind of minor pleasure you savor in a film that's too often off-speed. Unfortunately, his character, an ex-con turned "murder consultant," exists to offer a token acknowledgment of Dale, Kurt and Nick's knee-jerk racism, indicating that the filmmakers are expecting a pass for all the stereotypes they are serving up.
But there's no such get-out-of-jail-free card for Horrible Bosses' all-encompassing fear of sex. In the film's first lines, Nick cites his celibacy as a testament to professional commitment. Dale's plot-line suggests that we live in a society that's so twisted that innocent men are convicted as sex offenders, while actual "rapists" are untouchable.
The specter of would-be powerful white dudes getting raped emerges in Horrible Bosses so often that it becomes the film's primary subject. On the film's continuum of emasculation, professional subordination is the midpoint and sexual violation looms as the dreaded final destination. What passes for comedy here doesn't have a chance against a thesis so scary and sad.
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