By Drew Taylor | The Playlist July 6, 2011 at 7:29AM
A dark comedies, even a generic, mass-marketed studio confection like this week's "Horrible Bosses," offers the promise of, if not laughs then, at the very least, a kind of dangerous edginess that sets it apart from the bland and safe "Hall Pass"es of the world. Of course, should the conceit falter then you're left with something even worse than the pallidness of a mainstream comedy -- the bad aftertaste of tonal unevenness and missed opportunity. And, sadly, that's exactly what you get from "Horrible Bosses."
The concept behind the R-rated, yet still-playing-it-safe comedy is relatively sound – Jason Bateman plays Nick, an executive at some kind of nebulously defined financial group who is constantly undermined by his unctuous and despotic boss (Kevin Spacey); Jason Sudeikis is Kurt, who works as an accountant at a chemical company whose fatherly boss has passed away, leaving his coke-addled son (Colin Farrell) in charge; and Charlie Day is Dale, a dim-bulb dental hygiene assistant who is constantly sexually harassed by his slinky dentist boss (Jennifer Aniston). After a series of humiliating, narratively perfunctory and lazy setbacks (get the story in motion already!), the trio of friends down some drinks, decide to stop talking hypothetically and get it done – they want to murder their bosses. Welcome to an entertaining idea and its uninspired execution.
After hemming and hawing over their ill-conceived plan, the idiotic trio -- unbelievably moronic, even by suspension-of-disbelief sitcom standards -- contacts a shady underworld character named Motherfucker Jones (Jamie Foxx) who acts as their murder consultant for a cool 5 Gs. After refusing to actually murder anyone, he gives them the bright idea that they should murder each other's bosses, which elicits references to both Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train" and, inevitably, "Throw Momma from the Train" (just the first of many unnecessary and pointless movie references scattered throughout). Of course, nothing goes as planned and the craziness intensifies as their criminal activity increases, yet one of the chief complaints about "Horrible Bosses" is that the movie never feels dangerous enough. Sure, these guys might be in over their heads and facing some potentially severe ramifications, but it's all is so bubbly and effervescent that nothing ever carries the all-important weight of consequence. Sure, it's a comedy, but this is the lightest and fluffiest of stuff.
So what is there, instead? Well, there are a bunch of big movie stars who contribute a couple of week's work hamming it up as unrepentant villains. Most of the time this works, although you feel like you've already seen Spacey do it countless times before (its yet another variation on his "Swimming With Sharks" character, only less successful) and Farrell's character, perhaps the most interesting (as well as the most cartoonishly broad), is given the least amount of screen time (in the self-congratulatory closing credits montage, arguably funnier than the film itself, we glimpse a scene of his that's not even in the final movie). It's fun to see Aniston play naughty, but that's about all she does and her scenes never push the boundaries or get as crazy as they could. Her grotesque character hints at levels of hilarious and uncomfortable raunch, but neither the script nor the filmmakers ever go there (there's a masturbation scene which is so tame it feels like its been censored by her PR). Foxx fares marginally better, with his character carrying a winningly goofy back-story and, later in the film, he gets to lightly tease the movie's questionable racial profiling.
But there's just so little commitment to the core idea that movie can't be anything but an intermittently funny, instantly forgettable romp. The three lead actors all have a goofy, amiable level of charm that never rises to anything remarkable. They're all playing characters who are pushed around by their bosses, blending into their workplace setting, and so too do they just blend into the background of the movie. Jason Bateman's, dry, straight-man one-liners work well (in spite, or maybe because, of this being his comfortable go-to character), but Jason Sudeikis is one-note smug and Charlie Day is a torrent of over-the-top squawking and wiry energy that you want to strangle. By the time the movie reaches its frantic conclusion, you just want to put him on "mute" or throttle his raucous imp routine. It's as if his comedy routine merely consists of being agitated at increasingly loud volumes. Episodic in nature, a lot of the scenarios feel like they belong on the small screen, with their unfunny, slapdash jokes and unconvincing set pieces only missing the canned laugh track to let us know when we're supposed to let slip a mild chuckle.
Even at a compact 95 minutes "Horrible Bosses" drags horribly. Directed by Seth Gordon, who as a documentarian made "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters" one of the greatest sports movies in recent memory, before transitioning into narrative features with the truly miserable Reese Witherspoon/Vince Vaughn holiday rom-com "Four Christmases," the things that made his first effort so spectacularly special – propulsive narrative drive, a keen eye towards character development – are totally missing from his fiction films. In "Horrible Bosses," the plot, while incredibly simplistic, careens out of control without any discernible path (an interlude where our heroes hire a shadowy figure for "wet work" is a particularly painful deviation) and especially towards the end, it throws common sense out the window, replacing it with a big, tenuous action sequence, hinging squarely on convenient coincidence and shoddy police work. Neither as dark nor as edgy as it thinks it is or wants to be "Horrible Bosses" is a middling disappointment. [C-]