Saturday, August 31, 2013

Horrible Bosses (Rat Entertainment, New Line Cinema, Warner Bros., 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched a DVD I had recently picked up of the 2011 movie Horrible Bosses, the sort of mediocre movie that could have been really great. It was directed by Seth Gordon from a committee-written script by Michael Markowitz and John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein (for those not up on Writers’ Guild etiquette, that means Markowitz wrote his first draft solo and Daley and Goldstein teamed up to revise it), and it apparently was enough of a success ($117,528,646 gross on an estimated budget of $35,000,000) that a sequel is in the works. The plot centers around three drinking buddies, all of whom are in uncomfortable work situations. Nick Hendricks (Jason Bateman) has been sucking up to a fascistic martinet boss, Dave Harken (Kevin Spacey), for 10 years in hopes of working up the corporate ladder (there’s no clue about what the company he works for actually does, as there is with the other two central characters), and he laments his plight in an opening narration that’s one of the funniest parts of the film: “I get to work before the sun comes up, and I leave long after it’s gone down. I haven’t had sex in 6 months with someone other than myself. And the only thing in my refrigerator is an old lime. Could be a kiwi, no way to tell.” Nick’s on the point of getting a promotion to vice-president in charge of sales when Harken, pissed at Nick for showing up two minutes late and trying to lie that he was only one minute late, decides to take on the sales position himself. Dale Arbus (Charlie Day) is a dental assistant who’s being sexually harassed by the female dentist he works for, Julia Harris (Jennifer Aniston) — one wonders whether someone on the writing team deliberately picked these names because they’re similar to those of people with intellectual cachet, actress Julie Harris (who just died a few days ago) and photographer Diane Arbus — and he’s worried that his boss’s amorous intentions towards him will break up his relationship with his fiancée Stacy (Lindsay Sloane). He also can’t find another job because he’s a registered sex offender; all he did was take out his dick to pee outdoors, but the empty lot he chose to piss in was a playground and that was enough to run afoul of the sex police. The third musketeer, Kurt Buckman (Jason Sudeikis), actually likes his work situation at the Pellitt Chemical Company, and he likes his boss — until said boss croaks of a heart attack in the company parking lot and he’s replaced by his sex-crazed coke-addict son Bobby Pellitt (an almost unrecognizable Colin Farrell), who makes it clear to everybody around that he’s going to milk the company for all the money he can get out of it so he can continue his sex and cocaine binges.

The three hapless young (or not-so-young) men — nerdy little Dale and O.K.-looking but not drop-dead handsome Nick and Kurt — get together and start talking about knocking off their bosses, and at one point they actually cite both Strangers on a Train and its spoof/remake, Throw Momma from the Train, in hitting on the idea of committing each others’ murders. Eventually they decide to hire a hit man, at which they’re as inept as they are at everything else (one gets the impression there’s a reason, even in pre-recession times, these guys couldn’t get better jobs). The first guy they hire is someone who advertised on a “men seeking men” Web site for “wet work,” though when he comes to the hotel where they’ve arranged to meet him (and does a lot of James Bond-style “business”) the first thing he does is lay down a rubber sheet on the floor. It turns out he’s a hustler whose specialty is pissing on people (though I’d never heard the term “wet work” before in connection with that kink; the term I’ve heard is “golden showers”). The next guy is someone they go to meet at a bar Nick’s “NavGuide” system (supposedly a navigation aid that wires them to a call center in India, where their contact is named Atmanand but has been assigned the name “Gregory,” but one which turns out to have NSA-style Big Brother knowledge and influence over them) has recommended as the place where they’re most likely to be car-jacked (this is taking place in L.A. and the suburb of Riverside), where they meet up with a tough bartender and are accosted by a man who calls himself “Mother Fucker” Jones (an almost-as-unrecognizable as Farrell Jamie Foxx) because, as he explains, his original given name is “Dean” and having the same name as the (human) star of The Love Bug had less-than-zero street cred in the ’hood. He takes $5,000 from them but only to be their “murder consultant,” not to kill their bosses himself, and the plot proceeds from there into incidents that are genuinely amusing but mostly nowhere nearly as funny as the writers and director Gordon thought they were.

Through much of the film I found myself wishing a genuine comic genius could have got hold of this premise — what a movie Preston Sturges could have made around this concept! — until I remembered that in the late 1970’s a genuine comic genius, Colin Higgins, did get hold of this premise and made Nine to Five, a brilliantly funny film that also centered around three main characters (women instead of men) and an asshole boss (only one, whom all the heroines work for) they’d like to see dead, but brought a brilliant, anarchic energy to the concept and also did a lot more social commentary on the whole idea of “work,” of why the people of a country that celebrates “rugged individualism” and democratic freedom in the political and social arena passively accept the regimentation and dictatorial control of bosses in the workplace. Comparing Horrible Bosses to Nine to Five is a sobering lesson in how much the Zeitgeist has changed in the intervening 31 years, from an era in which movies could at least play at criticizing capitalism to one in which the system is sacrosanct and the people subjected to it realize that they really have no alternative but to knuckle under and hope for the best. Even the irony of having a woman sexually harass a man at work was already done (by Right-wing author Michael Crichton in Disclosure), and it’s funny at first but the one joke in the whole Dale-and-Julia plot line quickly wears out its welcome. Gordon and his writers at least don’t fall into the trap of making their movie too dark — though the transition of Kevin Spacey’s character from an ordinary nasty boss to a figure almost literally from hell pushes the plot beyond credibility — and though there are a few stray bits of social comment they seem to have sneaked in almost unconsciously rather than actually being thought out by the writers and director. I didn’t dislike Horrible Bosses — though almost all the comedy revolves around sex or raunch, that’s par for the course these days (and at least this is one modern comedy where we’re not expected to laugh at people farting — though there is an odd gag in which Kurt decides to fuck himself in the ass with his boss’s toothbrush, for reasons none of the writers trouble to explain) — I actually enjoyed it, but there were all too few scenes that made me laugh out loud, and properly done, with some real imagination, this premise could have generated a movie that would have had me falling on the floor.