Dir:- Seth Gordon
Starr:- Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis, Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston, Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx, Donald Sutherland
Sometimes I wonder if around the age of seventeen my sense of humour got shut away in the deep-freeze of adulthood. It seems so long ago since I last sat down and watched a great comedy. So is it just me? Did someone amputate my funny bones while I was sleeping? Or, has comedy cinema become torturously unfunny? The fact that I still appreciate a good stand-up performer (a Louis CK, Richard Herring, Dylan Moran, for example) and adore sitcoms of the quality of Gervais’ Extras, or the aforementioned Louis CK’s Louie, makes me suspect that the problem doesn’t lie with me. Thus, ipso facto (to put it in the parlance of Charlie Day’s character in Horrible Bosses) there must be something wrong with comedy cinema.
Part of the problem may well be the increasingly ridiculous lengths screenwriters appear willing to go to in the hope of contriving a comedic ‘situation’. In terms of story, modern-day comedy often appears content with simply using the shorthand of referencing other movies, like some crazed film nerd spouting off their favourite film sequences in no particular order (think anything featuring Will Ferrell in a lead role, or made by Judd Apatow). Failing this approach then the plot’s sheer absurdity is frequently highlighted by the characters, as if this post-modern schtick could somehow make the execrable turn to gold (think Tina Fey and Steve Carrell in the extraordinarily stupid Date Night, or anything with Owen Wilson on auto-pilot). Very often a comedy film will then shoe-horn in a star-performer, or up-and-coming stand-up (usually an SNL alumini), around which the woeful plot machinations can revolve, in the hope that their ‘winning’ comedic charm will paper over the non-existent story (Adam Sandler is still public enemy number one). The final prominent approach, which has been around for many a year, is to simply dwell upon some ‘gross-out’ element of ‘reality’ (a kid copulating with a pie, a grossly obese person farting) and play up to any kind of hackneyed ‘taboo’ repetitively. Whatever the approach there is a near-total disregard nowadays for the most basic of narrative requirements, a ‘character’ (not a performer) that an audience can either relate to, or become horrified by, over the course of a story being told.
Seth Gordon, the man who brought us the engaging arcade documentary The King of Kong, manages to fall into many of these above mentioned traps in the ultra-daft Horrible Bosses. The Hangover has a lot to answer for, as being a mildly amusing box-office smash it has become the de facto Hollywood comedic paradigm. Take three guys, preferably one clean-cut and charismatic, one who is always willing to follow his dick wherever it may lead and one who is a little neurotic and a whole lot of crazy, then put them into some ‘far-fetched’ situation and ensure enough dick and drug jokes are in place to carry the plotting through its leaner stretches. The Hangover may have been a daft bit of male wish-fulfillment, but at least it situated the action in a realistic milieu, a Las Vegas stag night, which made the absurdities of the narrative all the more probable. In Horrible Bosses you are never quite sure where the three friends actually are (I assume Los Angeles, simply because it doesn’t look like New York and appears to be hot) and more to the point the filmmakers don’t really seem to be too concerned with such details – afterall Sudeikis’ character works for a chemical company owned by a guy called Pellit and Bateman’s character works in a company that reads suspiciously like a phonetic spelling of ‘comedian’.
For what it is worth, Horrible Bosses revolves around the idea that three friends, stuck working under various types of ‘horrible boss’ (the despotic slave-driver, the coke-head nutcase, the sex-crazed maneater, see I read the promotional hoardings) decide to murder each other’s bosses, which, as the film helpfully points out, is pretty much the plot of Strangers on a Train and Throw Momma from the Train. This high concept narrative takes about thirty minutes to get going, as before our intrepid trio of put-upon employees can get down to their shoddily executed executions they first of all have to demonstrate how ‘horrible’ their bosses are – which, if you don’t get it from each little vignette, is helpfully reinforced with some ‘crazy’ bold-font interlays.
The horrible bosses in question are really just an excuse to cast some Hollywood ‘A-List’ talent in larger-than-life cameo roles. Colin Farrell, Jennifer Aniston and Kevin Spacey seem to really relish their respective walk-ons, but of the three of them only Spacey really convinces as Jason Bateman’s sadistic office manager. Colin Farrell barely registers as the coke-addled, kung-fu obsessed son of Donald Sutherland’s (blink and you will miss him) paternalistic chemical company owner (a real shame as Farrell has consistently proven how good he is at comedy, think Intermission and In Bruges). Whilst Jennifer Aniston’s turn as a sexually harassing nympho dentist seems an almost desperate performance from an actress who has effectively disappeared into a character vacuum of Friends’ making. Where Farrell has a comedy pronounced forehead and Aniston has a need to walk around in her underwear quite a bit, Spacey is a far more conventional workplace tyrant, which makes his particular brand of misery-dispensing all the more funny (the scene in which he makes Bateman drink a heroic full glass of whiskey is priceless).
The lead actors, with the exception of Bateman, were all fairly new to me. Charlie Day was ramped up to Galifianakis as the neurotic dental hygienist (has there ever been a more glorified job description) suffering a Michael Douglas fate at the hands of Aniston’s overly touchy-feely, I-Pad using, dentist. Day’s irritatingly whiny tones gradually became less excruciating as he began to shoulder most of the obvious visual comedy, particularly after his character inhales a motherload of cocaine. Sudeikis played the confident (almost conceitedly so) and apparently charming ladies man, who happens to own the most outrageously handy sat-nave service (a whole ten seconds of laughter can be derived from the mispronunciation of an Indian call-centre operative’s name). Thankfully Jason Bateman, a man who made Starsky and Hutch a pleasure, can always be depended upon when it comes to delivering withering self-deprecation and scalpel-sharp sarcasm.
Despite an excruciating set-up, the second half of the film did actually deliver some decent chuckles, particularly revolving around Day’s cocaine-fuelled logic. Jamie Foxx made a decent impression in a brief cameo as a ‘murder consultant’, further emphasising that comedy tends to emerge from the absurd played straight, without obvious irony, or a knowing wink. Seeing Foxx steal his scenes from the lead ‘comedians’, reminded me of Trading Places where Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy were so effective in find the comic within the dramatic. It is to films like Trading Places, or, perhaps more appropriately, the oft over-looked Mike Judge workplace comedy Office Space (featuring a decent Aniston comic turn), that I turn when thinking of great comedies. In both cases the crucial characteristic of the fantasy world these films portrayed was the way in which they sought to play the comedy straight, never letting the performers signpost the comic moment, but rather allow that comic moment to be discovered. Compared to works like these Horrible Bosses was nothing more than a modest ninety minutes of frivolity, but there have been comedies already this year that have delivered far less (the painfully unfunny Cedar Rapids). If nothing else I’m sure that it will at least serve to bring the euphemism ‘wet work’ out of the shadows and into racier afterwork conversation.