For an R-rated comedy, the humor doesn’t always have to be about shock value and gross-out gags (although those certainly don’t hurt). It can be about strong dialogue and fantastic performances and Seth Gordon’s Horrible Bosses manages exactly that. It’s the fourth major R-rated comedy to hit this summer and it may be the best one so far. While it lacks the warmth and maturity of Bridesmaids, it’s also a tighter, sharper narrative that keeps a laser-like focus on delivering non-stop jokes and never letting the plot stall. But more than its pacing, Horrible Bosses thrives because every actor is working at the top of their game. Leads Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, and Jason Sudeikis each maintain their own comic style but find a way to make those styles work in concert with each other. Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston, and Colin Farrell relish playing the eponymous bosses with Farrell and especially Aniston getting to show audiences a new side of their acting talents. The result of the sharp writing, profanity-laden humor, and killer performances make Horrible Bosses one of the year’s most consistent comedies.
Nick (Bateman), Dale (Day), and Kurt (Sudeikis) all hate their bosses. Nick has been working hard for a promotion he’ll never get because his boss Harken (Spacey) is evil. Dale is recently engaged and wants to be happily married, but he’s being sexually harassed to the nth degree by his sex-crazed boss Julia (Aniston). Kurt likes his job and liked his old boss (Donald Sutherland), but then his old boss’ cokehead son Bobby (Farrell) takes over and is running the company into the ground. As Nick, Dale, and Kurt’s lives become more difficult with each passing day, the three decide that it may be best if they just kill each other’s bosses. With the help of murder consultant Motherfucker Jones (Jamie Foxx), the trio bumble their way to trying to kill the bosses but spend more time arguing among themselves than actually engaging in successful murder.
Horrible Bosses is not a dark comedy in the mold of The Ladykillers. It’s not about making sure that three desperate guys who seriously contemplate murder get their comeuppance. The macabre isn’t the film’s goal. The movie’s goal is to fire off as many foul-mouthed jokes as possible without getting too lost in shock value or letting one character’s personality dominate the entire picture. The movie requires six distinct performances and every single actor not only delivers, but finds a way to make sure their performance can play off the other actor.
Charlie Day is the breakthrough star here. Fans of his TV series It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia know he had the comedic chops to deliver a great performance, but Horrible Bosses lets him run wild and although there are times when it gets to be almost too much, if he didn’t have strong co-stars like Bateman and Sudeikis, he would easily steal almost every scene he’s in. Day is at his best when he’s got someone to play off, and while Dale isn’t quite as stupid as It’s Always Sunny’s Charlie, the character is still pretty dim-witted, but has a good heart. The stupidity works brilliantly when paired with the intellect of Nick and Kurt, and the heart is essential as he is being dominated by Julia.
With Horrible Bosses, Aniston gives her best comic performance in years. Her movies tend to cast her as the bland, slightly neurotic female lead in the latest unoriginal rom-com and no role has ever required her to go as dark or as twisted as this one. It’s not just that her dialogue is absolutely filthy and it’s shocking to hear it come out of Aniston’s mouth. The performance works because Aniston delivers that filthy, shocking dialogue so well and because she has such great and demented chemistry with Day.
The movie works as a whole because every actor knows how to work with each other in the context of the story. In the scenes between Julia and Dale, it makes no sense for Day to play his character manic and wild because Julia has all the power. Instead, he goes subtle, takes a step back, and lets Aniston run the show. That fantastic comic balance runs throughout Horrible Bosses. Nick is sardonic, Dale is manic, and Kurt is smarmy, and while these actors have played roles along these lines before, the performances feel fresh because they’ve been placed in a new context. Letting Aniston and Farrell play such outsized roles is refreshing (Spacey’s work feels like a retread of what we’ve seen from him before—he’s good, but his performance isn’t surprising), but some of the funniest scenes are just Nick, Dale, and Kurt arguing in a car. The actors know when to adjust their tone, their pacing, and when to step on each other’s lines and the result makes the film come alive.
Horrible Bosses has a terrific script filled with memorable jokes and you get the sense that if you watch it again and again, smaller jokes will rise to the surface after the shock value of some of the dialogue has faded. But the humor truly comes alive and sticks in your mind when delivered by such a talented cast who jump in completely to make every joke work.