Review: ‘Horrible Bosses 2’ has funny pieces but is even more mild-mannered than the first

On the one hand, I respect anyone who can devise a formula that works for them and for an audience, and while I wasn't a huge fan of the film, the first “Horrible Bosses” seemed to connect with audiences three years ago. The appeal of that film, and one that seems like it's pretty smart in its universal appeal, is that we have all had bosses we hate at some point. Watching characters we like get one up on people we hate is something that seems enormously easy to enjoy.

My problem with the first film was that it felt like it never really embraced its premise. It wasn't mean enough, and I guess I hoped we'd see them cut loose in “Horrible Bosses 2” and really go for the dark humor the first film promised but soft-pedaled. After all, they were adding to very game performers in the form of Christoph Waltz and Chris Pine, and the success of the first film should have served as permission to go further.

The original was made by director Seth Gordon and screenwriters Michael Markowitz and John Francis Daley & Jonathan M. Goldstein, none of whom return for this installment. Instead, director Sean Anders is working from a script he co-wrote with John Morris, which I took as a good sign. I think “Sex Drive,” the comedy that Morris and Anders made together, is genuinely funny and well-made, and I was hoping for that same sensibility here.

Ultimately, “Horrible Bosses 2” is the type of sequel that will play to the exact same people who thought the first film was enough, and that will win no new fans to the series. It is very much the same movie as the first one, with a few variations on the formula, but nothing that makes any significant difference. The story this time is a variation on O. Henry's “The Ransom Of Red Chief,” with Chris Pine playing the spoiled, shitty son of a wealthy businessman who screws over Kurt (Jason Sudeikis), Nick (Jason Bateman), and Dale (Charlie Day). When they decide to get revenge on Waltz by kidnapping his son, they learn that Rex (Pine) hates his dad just as much as they do, and he offers to help them stage the perfect kidnapping. That set-up promises all sorts of mayhem and chaos, but it all feels… well… safe.

By far, the person who looks to be having the most fun here is Chris Pine, who seems to me to be more suited to a comedy career than a straight action movie career. This guy's too weird to be Jack Ryan, Hollywood. Pay attention. He keeps telling you. He's cut from the same cloth as James Marsden, who is at his very best when he's allowed to be funny. It's no coincidence that one of Marsden's best comedy roles so far was in “Sex Drive,” and Anders and Morris seem to have a good sense of what to do with this kind of over-the-top alpha energy.

Jennifer Aniston is also back to once again play sexual predator/dentist Julia, and she does fine with what she has, but as in the first film, she's gone as soon as she shows up. The main three guys are fine as well, but they can coast on the easy comic chemistry they have together without ever really landing any big laughs. Kevin Spacey's character returns for a few scenes as well, and he's great at playing this kind of slimy lizard-lidded asshole, but again… two quick scenes and he's gone. And that sums up the “Horrible Bosses” films for me. They dabble at making you laugh. They saunter right up to the joke and then shrug it off. They feel like they are the bare minimum version of what could be very, very funny, and it frustrates me more than it makes me laugh.

There are laughs in the movie, but they feel like they are isolated gags, not sustained runs, and in order for this to work as character comedy, they'd have to be playing better defined characters and not just heightened versions of themselves. Maybe this franchise works for you, and if so, you may enjoy this more than I did, but as much as I like the pieces here, put together, it does next to nothing for me.

“Horrible Bosses 2” is in theaters November 26, 2014.