Can murder ever be funny? Absolutely. Just ask the Coen brothers, who have spun some of the vilest, most violent attacks in cinema history into comic gold (see: Burn After Reading, Fargo but not The Ladykillers). Of course, the killers in those aforementioned films are hardly sympathetic, so perhaps the question should be: Can movie murderers ever be likable? Ah, now we’re narrowing it down. A quick Google search of ‘funniest movie murders’ returns 17,800,000 hits, while ‘likable movie murderers’ offers a mere 852,000 pages. Perhaps Hollywood doesn’t believe audiences will identify with a murderous protagonist, hence the few movie heroes plotting cold-blooded execution (excluding those lovable paid assassins). The irony is … we would! If cinema can be enjoyed as a form of wish-fulfillment, then such films would definitely appeal to that little voice at the back of our heads that ponders – even if just for a second – what it would be like to dispatch of that enemy, undo the existence of that chatty cinemagoer, or take sweet revenge on your obnoxious supervisor.
With that, we arrive at Seth Gordon’s Horrible Bosses, a comedy about likable wannabe-murderers; perhaps the best film about such a subject, but, as established, maybe the only one too. Nick (Jason Bateman) lives to work; he’s happy putting in outrageously long hours if that means he can one day reach the top of the pyramid at his office. To do that, he’ll need to eat the, erm, excrement of his jerk boss Dave Harken (Kevin Spacey), and lots of it (not literally though; this isn’t a Tom Six film). His high school buddies, Dale (Charlie Day) and Kurt (Jason Sudeikis), are similarly outranked by terrible human beings at their workplaces. Dale is a dental assistant to Dr. Julia Harris (Jennifer Aniston), a psychotic maneater who confuses rape threats with gentle flirts. Kurt, meanwhile, is not only mourning the death of his sage-like factory boss Jack Pellitt (Donald Sutherland), but is forced to contend with Jack’s newly-promoted cocaine-addled douchebag son Bobby (Colin Farrell). After downing a few too many beers and sharing their war stories, the guys jokingly suggest that their lives would be better if their superiors were dead. The seed, albeit ridiculous, has been planted, and the trio slowly considers how to go about taking Dave, Julia and Bobby out of the picture. After speaking with murder consultant ‘Motherf*****’ Jones (Jamie Foxx), they decide to kill one another’s bosses, Strangers on a Train style.
If the film works at all – and it mostly does – it’s because of Bateman’s performance (speaking of sympathetic: he could have played Patrick Bateman and made him seem adorable). His boss is the only one that seems like a comic exaggeration of a real person (kudos also goes to Spacey for hamming it up in style), and his frustrations evolve into a quiet rage that make his evolution into a killer (or at least an almost-killer) believable. Aniston and Farrell both play awful creatures, and are fun in the roles, but don’t seem to be cut from the cloth of any real human beings that I’ve ever seen. Day’s Dale and Sudeikis’ Kurt are nice comic foils, but despite having even more of a reason than Nick to kill their bosses, they seem to be mostly going along for the ride. The problem here is with the screenplay (first by Michael Markowitz, then rewritten by John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein), which isn’t as dark or raunchy as it should be. Sure, it’s funny, but not nearly as funny as it should be. It relies too often on coincidence; the lazy-kind, not the tragic-damnation-of-the-cosmos kind employed by the Coens. At one point, the screenwriters seem to forget completely that Aniston’s Dr. Harris is even a character in this film. Gordon maintains a peppy vibe (which doesn’t quite mesh with the film’s themes) but keeps things moving fast enough for us to at least momentarily forget about the machinations of the plot as they’re happening.
Will Horrible Bosses herald a new age of movies in which we get sympathetic heroes with at least one murderous bone in their body? Maybe. The trio of hopeful-killers here are indeed likable, but their targets never really seem human, so their plans don’t seem out of the realm of relatability. Horrible Bosses seems to be afraid of its own premise; it sells itself short and avoids all risks. Although it may not be a new landmark in movie comedy, it offers enough laughs to warrant a viewing (although I suspect you’ll have a better time discussing it with friends later, and sharing tales of your nightmare workplace, and toying with some very bad decisions of your own).
Horrible Bosses arrives in Australian cinemas August 25.