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Swimming With Sharks, or Sinking to Their Level

Horrible Bosses (2011)

John P. Johnson/Warner Brothers Pictures

Hollywood used to be much better about dealing with issues of class. For starters, class used to be an issue addressed in its movies. During the Great Depression, when studios took the trouble to dress up their leading actors in glamorous and ridiculous situations, they also ensured the characters were at minimum aware of their privilege. Hollywood also used to be able to differentiate between people deserving of the audience's sympathy and a bag of tools. "Horrible Bosses" proves conclusively that Hollywood nowadays can do neither.

It is a mash-up of "Strangers on a Train" and "9 to 5," with the sexual tension and the intelligence removed. The setup is three friends working for three separate bosses have finally had enough. Nick (Jason Bateman) has been working 14-hour days awaiting a promotion long promised by Harken (Kevin Spacey). Dale (Charlie Day) can only find work with Dr. Harris (Jennifer Aniston), who uses that leverage to terrorize him and his penis. And Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) suddenly has to contend with Pellit (Colin Farrell) taking over the family company to use as his personal A.T.M.

Well, this cannot be borne! Three middle-class white men in their 30s and 40s should not have to suffer the indignities of awful working situations! How dare they be expected to quit their jobs and start their careers over at the bottom! They are entitled to the career trajectory which they feel they deserve!

For a setup, this is awful. The only character for whom the audience could kind of feel sorry is himself a registered sex offender, which — to put it mildly — is not a very sympathetic character trait. The friend who convinces them the job market is hard out there worked at Lehman Brothers. When things get bad, Messrs. Bateman and Sudeikis react by arguing over who would be raped more in prison. When they have the brilliant idea of murdering their bosses, they decide that since they outsource their hair-cutting and house-cleaning, they should outsource the boss-murdering as well. To do this, they find a "magical negro" with the nonmagical name of Motherfucker Jones (Jamie Foxx, who deserves better). And from there things get nasty indeed.

If you can live with the characters' sense of entitlement, the movie works for three reasons: Firstly, it's clear the actors had a whale of a time making it. All the villains are fantastic: Mr. Spacey can chew scenery like no one else. Mr. Farrell and Ms. Aniston both play against type to make two very nasty people very funny to watch. There are also two unexpected cameos that work perfectly. Secondly, there is an entirely new — and wholly appropriate — deus ex machina. Finally, the movie is tied together by excellent set designs (by Jan Pascale) and music, which was quirky without overpowering the rest of the action. Director Seth Gordon, who did "Four Christmases" and the documentary "The King of Kong," has a knack for pacing, repartee and building solid characterization out of not very much. He also uses outtakes for the credit sequence, which for once aren't funnier than the movie itself.

But New Line Cinema should please, please consider reshooting this movie from the point of view of Mr. Foxx's character. If we want to look at how the current economic situation impacts on people whose choices aren't just limited by their sense of entitlement, then that is the right place to start. (The upcoming "The Help" will be very interesting to watch in that context.) Actually, the deus ex machina is the right place to start, but that movie wouldn't be much of a comedy. The repartee between Messrs. Bateman, Sudeikis and Day seems natural and unforced, although we haven't heard this much male whining since "Swingers" or maybe "Diner," both of which had no rape jokes. Though you could swap them with the cast of "The Hangover Part II" without either movie being fundamentally altered, which is not a good thing.

"The Palm Beach Story" (1942) had a brief sequence in which some drunk hunters on a train ended up using a black bartender for target practice. It's still shocking but funnier than it sounds, because the movie explicitly sided with the unharmed bartender, and the drunks were comic relief, not the movie's heroes. "Strangers on a Train" worked because of its homosexual subtext; and "9 to 5" worked because Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin kidnapped Dabney Coleman for the good of all their female colleagues. Also, there weren't any rape jokes. If only "Horrible Bosses" had been interested in the bigger picture — or has any subtext of any kind — it would have been a much better movie. It is fitfully funny, but mainly it shows very clearly how far down the rabbit hole Hollywood has fallen. If it keeps making its heroes this horrible, it's heading for a major crash of its own.


Opens on July 8 in the United States and on July 22 in Britain.

Directed by Seth Gordon; written by Michael Markowitz, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, based on a story by Mr. Markowitz; director of photography, David Hennings; edited by Peter Teschner; music by Christopher Lennertz; production design by Shepherd Frankel; costumes by Carol Ramsey; produced by Brett Ratner and Jay Stern; released by Warner Brothers Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Jason Bateman (Nick Hendricks), Charlie Day (Dale Arbus), Jason Sudeikis (Kurt Buckman), Jennifer Aniston (Dr. Julia Harris), Colin Farrell (Bobby Pellit), Kevin Spacey (Dave Harken), Donald Sutherland (Jack Pellit), Julie Bowen (Rhonda Harken), Jamie Foxx (Dean Jones) and Lindsay Sloane (Stacy).


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