There's a scene in Horrible Bosses in which Jennifer Aniston, playing a dentist who habitually sexually harasses her weakling male hygienist (Charlie Day), repeatedly says the word “pussy.” She is trying to intimidate him, while the filmmakers attempt to shock the audience with the spectacle of this lady rom-com specialist — whose star persona is so beige that her name above the title on The Good Girl qualified as redundant — dropping slang for vagina. But it's not shocking to hear an adult woman say “pussy” in an R-rated movie. What's shocking is that this intimidation gambit works: Day's Dale is so afraid of Aniston's Julia, as both a professional superior and a sexual threat, that hearing her refer to her own intimate anatomy sends him into physical convulsions of revulsion.
Horrible Bosses, directed by Seth Gordon, is an ensemble comedy about how our tough economic times have destroyed white-collar, white-male masculinity. This is more or less the same subject taken on by Larry Crowne, the equally middling Tom Hanks film that opened last week, except that Hanks uses said financial crisis as a jumping-off point for an all-too-sunny exercise in inspirational wish fulfillment, where Gordon's film fancies itself a blackly funny revenge fantasy.
Dale, painted as the helpless victim of a sexually hostile supervisor, is part of a troika of high school friends — also including chemical company accountant Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) and unspecified corporate drone Nick (Jason Bateman) — who, at fortyish, are each facing intractable career obstacles. Kurt loves his job and his immediate boss — who promptly dies, leaving the company to his cokehead son (Colin Farrell, trying on an American accent that's as glaringly fake as his prosthetic combover). Nick works for an asshole taskmaster (Kevin Spacey) who keeps dangling a promotion and then yanking it away when Nick fails to meet impossible standards. The three put-upon employees regularly meet for drinks to commiserate, and one night they have too many and decide that since the economy is so bad and they're too afraid to actually quit and be left with nothing, the only way up the career ladder is to eliminate their bosses.
As Gordon (who previously helmed the arcade doc King of Kong and the Reese Witherspoon/Vince Vaughn-com Four Christmases) sleepwalks through the montages and setpieces that will get our boys from drunken violent fantasy to clean-handed happy ending, the key “joke” becomes that these guys aren't too upstanding to kill, but merely too chickenshit and incompetent. That, plus the fact that there's no indication that offing their bosses will make these guys' lives any better, means that Horrible Bosses is missing the energy that would come from legitimate rage. In fact, there's every sign that, even without these particular emasculators, Dale, Kurt, and Nick would still be — for lack of a better word — total pussies.
The film's screenwriters include TV actor John Francis Daley, of House and Freaks and Geeks; Jonathan M. Goldstein, a writer and producer on the Shit My Dad Says sitcom; and Michael Markowitz, a producer on the post-Cheers Ted Danson vehicle Becker. This team's credits speak volumes about Horrible Bosses' tone and tenor. With its lazily sketched characters recalling the back half of an unremarkable episode of SNL, this is middling TV material, almost comforting in its bland predictability — the kind of stuff you want on the seatback screen when there's turbulence on a plane — but rarely actually laugh-out-loud funny, and never truly dark or daring. In this arid climate, the few zingers that land seem momentarily juicier than they really are. In a two-scene cameo, a knowing Jamie Foxx delivers the kind of minor pleasure you savor in a film that is too often off-speed. Unfortunately, his character, an ex-con turned “murder consultant,” exists to offer a token acknowledgement of Dale, Kurt, and Nick's kneejerk racism, indicating that the filmmakers are expecting a pass for all the stereotypes they are serving up.
But there's no such get-out-of-jail-free card for Horrible Bosses' all-encompassing fear of sex — hetero and homo, consensual and otherwise. The only person who actually pursues it for pleasure is Kurt, and he's presented as a lech who is always taught a lesson (a sample line of dialogue: “Speaking of entrapment, I'm gonna go see that girl about her vagina” — which is the first half of an extremely vague two-part reference to Good Will Hunting that is commendable only for taking almost the entire film to resolve). In the film's first lines, Nick cites his celibacy as a testament to professional commitment. Dale's plotline suggests that we live in a society so twisted that innocent men are convicted as sex offenders, while actual “rapists” (a term frequently thrown around here, in reference to women and men) are untouchable.
In fact, the specter of would-be powerful white dudes getting raped emerges in Horrible Bosses so often that it transcends subtext to become the film's primary subject. On the film's continuum of emasculation, professional subordination is the midpoint, and sexual violation looms ahead as the dreaded final destination. What passes for comedy here doesn't have a chance against a thesis so scary and sad.