I’m getting a little sick of reading (and saying and writing) the phrase “the plot is just a clothesline to hang the gags on” in reviews of Hollywood comedies. Yes, laughs are the most important thing in a comedy, but if laughs are the only thing in a comedy, the film might be funny, but that’s all it will ever be. Seth Gordon‘s “Horrible Bosses” represents a welcome return to plot-based comedy. This is not a movie in which the plot is just a clothesline to hang gags on. There’s an honest-to-God story here, and the more twists and turns it takes the better and funnier “Horrible Bosses” gets.
That story is simple but the execution could be tricky. Three working stiffs — corporate drone Nick (Jason Bateman), dental hygienist Dale (Charlie Day), and manager of a small chemical company Kurt (Jason Sudekis) — realize over one of their weekly commiseration sessions at the local bar, that their lives are perfect in every way except for one: their horrible bosses. Dave (Kevin Spacey) tricks Nick into getting drunk on the job, then steals his promotion. Julia (Jennifer Aniston) is so intent on sleeping with Dale that she threatens to tell his fiance they have unless he actually does. And Bobby (Colin Farrell) is a greedy cokehead who inherits the business from his father. He forces Kurt to do his dirty work for him (first order of business: “trim the fat,” i.e. “fire the fat people”) and threatens to run the company into the ground. The trio resolve to murder their bosses, only jokingly and drunkenly at first, but more seriously after things get even worse at work. Why don’t they just quit their jobs, you ask? In this economy? The way things are these days, you’ve got to hold onto your career like grim death, even if that means sending someone else off to theirs.
Murderous fantasies are one thing, but actually plotting (and then actually executing) a hit isn’t necessarily a comedy slam dunk. To make it funny, you’ve got to make the bosses pure, unadulterated evil, and the ones in “Horrible Bosses” definitely are. Farrell, sporting a awe-inspiring combover, is a being of pure sleaze and greed. Aniston, playing against type with a twinkle in her eye, is a funnily filthy seductress. And Kevin Spacey, who’s already in the Bad Movie Boss Hall of Fame for his role in the sadly forgotten “Swimming With Sharks” is a deliciously sinister sociopath as Dave. Nick, Dale, and Kurt make what little rationalizations they need to — since Bobby’s cost-cutting measures will mean the deaths of thousands of South Americans, murdering him would actually be a heroic gesture! — and set off on their plans.
After a lengthy and hilariously unsuccessful search for an assassin with an interest in, um, “wetwork,” they finally find a “murder consultant” played by Jamie Foxx. He suggests they each perform the other’s murders so that the have no apparent motive; you know, like that movie “Strangers on a Train” (or was it “Throw Momma From the Train”)? I will not spoil anything else about Foxx’s small but unforgettable role but everything about every moment he is in — from his plan to his character’s name to his hair to the ultimate reveal of how he got into the murder consulting game — is funny. One joke in particular involving Fox’s character — you’ll know it when you hear it because it involves the unexpected placement of a very unlikely movie title — made me laugh harder than any joke in any movie I’ve seen so far this year.
I laughed a lot in general at “Horrible Bosses,” but even more than the laughter, I appreciated the way the screenplay by Michael Markowitz, Jonathan M. Goldstein, and “Freaks and Geeks” star John Francis Daley continually ratchets up the tension as these very dumb guys get into deeper and deeper trouble. Here is one film whose outcome cannot be predicted from its opening scenes (not by a long shot). Rebounding from his dreadful first fiction feature “Four Christmases,” director Seth Gordon shows the same sort of deftness with suspenseful comic narratives that made his documentary on obsessive “Donkey Kong” players, “The King of Kong,” so hilariously entertaining. He juggles a big cast and a dicey comic premise, and he navigates the fine line between dark comedy and just plain dark with real skill.
“Horrible Bosses” has some good jokes, extremely likable performances and, yes, a real and vital plot. It’s a comedy with some suspense and even some stakes. What a welcome twist. Gordon and company really killed it.