Employees’ hatred for their bosses is so commonplace – and the wage gap between companies’ top earners and the cubicle drones who labor under them is so vast – that the thought of killing your boss is as American as working on holidays and schlepping to the office with the flu. If you question whether contemplating your boss’ untimely demise is the most accepted form of fantasy sadism in the country, look no further than the popular hand-drawn Internet game Whack Your Boss, in which players discover 20 ways to brutally murder their bosses using traditional office equipment.
The mainstreaming of hypothetical boss homicide reaches its apotheosis this weekend with the release of the black comedy Horrible Bosses, in which three emotionally battered buddies (Jason Bateman’s corporate paper shuffler, Charlie Day’s sexually molested dental assistant and Jason Sudeikis’ caring soul of a corrupt chemical company) attempt an elaborate scheme to send their tyrannical supervisors six feet under. The bosses, meanwhile, provide the movie’s glistening star power: Kevin Spacey reprises his conniving, pinstriped sociopath from Swimming With Sharks; Jennifer Aniston has a blast brandishing dental tools and delivering lines about “fingering” herself to episodes of Gossip Girl; an unrecognizable Colin Farrell turns his newly dead father’s formally virginal business into an emporium for hookers and Scarface-like cocaine binges.
Heavy on action, light on character depth and utterly over-the-top, Horrible Bosses is best approached by removing the veneer of plausibility and, to paraphrase the title of a far lesser Jennifer Aniston picture, just going with it. Within that context, the chemistry between the three leads becomes infectious and irrepressible. The screenplay by Michael Markowitz, John Francis Daley (Sam Weir on Freaks and Geeks all grown up) and Jonathan Goldstein was likely given over to improv somewhat, but it’s also circuitously clever, connecting its labyrinthine asides so they make sense within the film’s screwy logic. Like Pineapple Express, it’s a movie infatuated with its own movieness, delivering its ludicrous plot twists with self-conscious nudges. Needless to say, the film shows a marked improvement over director Seth Gordon’s only previous feature, the insipid Four Christmases.
Eschewing Apatovian sentiment and a refreshingly absent insidious moral center, Horrible Bosses has a lot in common with the abrasive Glenn Ficarra-John Requa projects Bad Santa and Bad News Bears. Beneath the nihilistic mirth, though, is a film that could only emerge from the anxieties of the Great Recession. Yes, the thought of killing one’s hellacious boss is a timeless revenge fantasy – the aforementioned Swimming With Sharks was released during the robust Clinton era. But only in an environment of double-digit unemployment would three guys resort to a murder plot because if they were to simply quit their jobs, they would be unlikely to find another.
In one early scene, Bateman, Day and Sudeikis are having an after-work huddle in a bar when a hotshot former schoolmate, who lost his job at Lehman Brothers after it went under, approaches their table begging for pocket money in exchange for hand jobs. The scene is played for laughs, but it’s devastatingly sad, suggesting enough of a socialist heartbeat to feed the rest of this hilarious, if politically benign, comedy.