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Comedy provides filmmakers and audiences with equal amounts of vexation. What makes something "funny," and what makes us laugh, is one of the hardest things to predict anywhere in the world. Making matters worse is comedy's sometimes generational and inherent regional specificity. Being able to tap into what's hilarious to Koreans and Germans and Australians alike is the Holy Grail of comedy writing. Add to that the efficacy of timeliness in comedy - currency being something television's short production schedules are better equipped to respond to - and you have a recipe for success that's almost as complicated as getting a souffl to rise perfectly. And when studio box office fortunes are dependent upon foreign returns to tally wins and losses, the business of funny takes on epically complex proportions.
That could be one of the reasons for the boom in frat-boy comedy of recent years. When the Farrelly Brothers earned an astonishing amount of money for the first modern gross out comedy in 1998, There's Something About Mary, the trend for juvenile humor and icky gags officially began. The King of Vulgar Chuckles, Judd Apatow, has made a career of this kind of base comedy, and he's inspired broad slate of copycats since his first success with The 40-Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, The Hangover, Going the Distance, Due Date, Role Models, and the upcoming Bridesmaids are just a few of the raunchy, raucous comedies to make their way to screens in recent (and coming) years.
The tie that binds these juvenile delights is their aggressive non-specificity. Nearly all the common denominators that form the central conceit of each film are ideas that are familiar to almost everyone in the world: boyfriends, girlfriends, spouses, kids, and weddings. You can't go wrong (or so goes the thinking) when Koreans, Germans, and Australians all date and get married. It makes for repetition but it's safe.
Like those other universal truths - exploding skyscrapers, catastrophic meteor collisions, and alien invaders - work cuts across all cultures. And if there's something Hong Kong understands, it's work. The workplace has been the locus for countless films and television sitcoms for decades; we do, after all, spend up to one-third of our days at work. So it was only a matter of time before a wily director and/or writer married crassness with employment. Enter Horrible Bosses.
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The incredibly high concept that demands heroic levels of suspension of disbelief is simple enough: three average working guys, mousy Nick (Jason Bateman), jittery Dale (Charlie Day), and horndog Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) work for three of the worst employers in history and plot to make their lives easy by having them murdered. Trouble is, they're inept in the ways of crime, and the plot falls to pieces almost as soon as it begins. End.
Horrible Bosses is relatively light on the gross factor, and so as part of a larger canon, it's a soft entry. That doesn't mean it's free of the coarse gags and dialogue of its brethren, but writers Michael Markowitz, John Francis Daley, and Jonathan Goldstein at least make attempts at truly pointed workplace observations and modern man's social predilections. And when I say "man" I mean man. Horrible Bosses has little interest in women, other than to make them vessels to reinforce social norms. Bosses is blessedly free of tired gay panic jokes but can't resist the urge to make Indian outsourcing a major comic (and plot) device. One step forward, one step back.
Director Seth Gordon has been kicking around sitcoms in recent years (Modern Family, Parks and Recreation) and it's no surprise to find the Horrible Bosses has more than a little sitcom tone and pacing in it. But he's perhaps best known for his 2007 documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, a riotous and equally pithy chronicle of a Kong competition. It's that sharp eye for contextual detail that gives Bosses it's best moments, chiefly when the three fools try and hire a killer from the personals (a charming cameo by Ioan Gruffudd), never once considering the meaning of "men seeking men" beyond their world. Or when they head into a bar dominated by black patrons to find a hitman, their gentle, oblivious racism leading the way. While those segments say a lot about Dale, Kurt, and Nick, Horrible Bosses is flawed for taking too much of the action away from the workplace. Following an introductory passage, the bosses are made horrible outside the office too, and are reduced to just being horrible people. They wind up being judged for their personal behavior and it ultimately dilutes the workplace humor.
Naturally timing, pitch-perfect reactions, and characters that are easy substitutes for "us" is what makes or breaks a comedy, and on this front Horrible Bosses is all over the map. As the mild-mannered Nick, Bateman is in his wheelhouse but nonetheless manages just the right level of mature frustration and placating bafflement with himself and his friends. As his nemesis Harken, Kevin Spacey simply channels his own awesome performance in 1994's Swimming with Sharks, but he's so fabulously caustic it's a pleasure to watch it again. In diminishing order of returns, next up is Sudeikis (Saturday Night Live), alternately dull and buffoonish as well as the most archetypical of the characters. He also can't hold a candle to the gonzo performance by Colin Farrell as Bobby. The film's biggest crime is in not exploiting Farrell for far more screen time. As Dale, Day's (Going the Distance) screeching harpy act grates more than it charms - and it demands the most narrative patience-and if hearing goody-goody Jennifer Aniston, as his boss Julia, use profanities is your idea of gut-busting you're in luck. Beyond that Aniston is unremarkable, and as the only woman in the cast, she's positioned on the receiving end of some needless male rage (A woman with a sex drive? She'll get hers!). Horrible Bosses is familiar but not the cynical carbon copy that The Hangover 2 was. It's not as raunchy as Apatow or as misguided as The Dilemma. What it is is a dollop of office drone fantasy with some inspired moments and a gift-wrapped happy ending. Hey, you may even forget you have to work on Monday.
Horrible Bosses opens in Hong Kong on August 25.