Review: ‘Horrible Bosses’ plays too nice for its own good

It’s been nice to go see comedies in the theater this summer that were obviously made with little regard for rating, or more accurately, that were comfortable accepting an R from the MPAA.  It was a given for “The Hangover Part II,” but getting four or five R-rated big studio comedies in one movie season?  Fairly rare.

The latest of them is Seth Gordon’s “Horrible Bosses,” and while I think the cast is game and Gordon seems to get the spirit of the thing right, it doesn’t work as a script, and this is one of those cases where the mix is tipped heavily in the wrong direction.  I laughed, but even as I laughed, I was frustrated by the potential that feels unfulfilled.  The screenplay by Michael Markowitz and John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein has a promising set-up, some funny early moments, and then it makes a series of choices that keep undercutting the things that work.  It’s an amiable mess, but a mess nonetheless.

The film kicks off with a really dark and nasty sense of humor, and the way each of the horrible bosses is introduced is very effective.  Nick Hendricks (Jason Bateman) works for the truly awful Dave Harken (Kevin Spacey), who is the sort of smug, blatantly amoral piece of garbage that Spacey made his career with.  Kurt Buckman (Jason Sudeikis) works for the charming and beloved Jack Pellitt (Donald Sutherland), whose son is the disturbingly vile Bobby Pellitt (Colin Farrell).  And poor Dale Arbus (Charlie Day) is employed by the aggressively forward Dr. Julia Harris (Jennifer Aniston). 

Each of them suffers enough indignities to tip them past the point of no return, and one drunken night, they hatch a plan to kill their bosses.  It’s a hypothetical conversation at first, a joke that quickly becomes much more than a joke.  And during that first part of the film, the easy chemistry between Bateman, Sudeikis, and Day is almost enough to carry the thing.  They’re all three funny guys, and there is a sharp edge to the exchanges between them.  The film’s first real problem is that the three of them aren’t really characters, though.  As much as they manage to create a rapport, they don’t create distinct characters.  They’re all just pretty much Generic Witty Dudes, and in particular, Bateman and Sudeikis have no real lives away from their jobs, no personalities to speak of.  Day at least has a fiancee, but she only shows up in two scenes, and it’s a cursory use of Lindsay Sloane at best.

Spacey, as I mentioned, seems to be coasting here, and he’s still funny while doing it.  Maybe it’s because he’s been away for a while, but it is comfortable seeing him play a total piece of filth again.  Nobody gives better hooded-eyed lizard than Spacey does.  The other two bosses, though, are given very little to do after the introductions, and it feels like a real waste.  Farrell looks to be having the same sort of fun Tom Cruise had in “Tropic Thunder,” losing himself in cartoonish prosthetics, unrecognizable and liberated as a result.  When you’ve got an actor as demented as Farrell and a character who looks like this, and you don’t make full use of that character, it makes no sense.  Same thing with the way they appear to forget that Aniston is even in the film.  She’s funny, and she seems willing to go as dark as possible, but she vanishes for big chunks of the movie, and when they do bring her back at the end, the wrap-up is so cursory that it feels like a band-aid instead of a real choice.  When your film is called “Horrible Bosses,” you shouldn’t make the film as wildly unbalanced as this one.

Technically, the film has a sort of lurching on-again off-again rhythm and a shaggy loose quality that keeps it from ever really snapping into focus.  Seth Gordon’s strong suit seems to be performance, not composition or pace.  It’s a perfect style for something like “Parks and Recreation” or “The Office,” both of which he’s directed, but at feature-length, he seems to me to still have trouble pulling it together as a complete piece that works from beginning to end as a whole.  There are certainly worse problems to have as a filmmaker than being solid but not spectacular or not being great at pacing.  Gordon needs a strong script going in, and you can’t ask him to fix it on the fly.  For all of the R-rated wicked fun that something like this promises, it doesn’t have any more bite than “9 To 5” did 30 years ago.  It just uses more dirty words.

Charlie Day is a very funny performer, and I quite like “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.”  That show is played at a manic pitch that works when it’s 22 minutes long and everyone in the cast plays it at that same sort of decibel range.  Here, Day tries to keep up that energy for an entire film, and there are moments where it becomes shrill, more frantic than funny.  I think it’s a case of a guy having become firmly entrenched in a certain stye of performance, and it’s something that I’m sure he’ll get better at as he does more feature work.  Sudeikis and Bateman are better at modulating what they do over the course of the film, but they’re playing such similar types that they’re basically just playing clever ping pong instead of playing something genuine.  Even in an outrageous comedy like this… actually, I’d say especially in an outrageous comedy like this… what really sells it is when we recognize something honest or genuine in the material, and there’s certainly plenty of that in the basic concept here.  It’s just that the execution is so uneven that it’s hard to ever give yourself over to the movie.

“Horrible Bosses” is not a bad film.  It’s just not as good as it should be, and instead of representing growth by Gordon, whose “The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters” remains the best thing he’s done, it feels to me like a step away from an individual voice and a step towards a sort of bland but professional style that seems disappointing.  I think he’s capable of better, and the best moments in the movie frustrate because they suggest the film that might have been.

“Horrible Bosses” opens in theaters everywhere this Friday.