Three hard-working professionals turn out to be pretty hopeless assassins in “Horrible Bosses,” a sorta-dark comedy predicated on the easily relatable notion that killing your supervisor would make the world a much better place. Too craven to take this idea to its properly nasty conclusion, this foul-mouthed effort instead coasts on its leads’ strong three-way chemistry and crack timing (quite literally, in a scene involving spilled cocaine), eliciting steady chuckles even as the plot bogs down in various dumbass shenanigans involving firearms, cell phones and fatal peanut allergies. Sturdy B.O. returns and some cultish homevid activity seem likely.
Written by Michael Markowitz, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (from a story by Markowitz), the pic lives up to its blunt title, rapidly introducing three highly competent employees and their impossibly despicable employers.
Office drone Nick Hendricks (Jason Bateman) works endless hours on a regular diet of abuse from his sadistic supervisor, Dave Harken (Kevin Spacey). Nick’s two closest buddies aren’t much better off: Dental hygienist Dale Arbus (Charlie Day) must fend off the aggressive sexual advances of Novocain-wielding nymphomaniac Dr. Julia Harris (Jennifer Aniston), while accountant Kurt Buckman (Jason Sudeikis) can only watch as newly installed superior Bobby Pellit (Colin Farrell) destroys his company to finance a coke-snorting, hooker-happy lifestyle.
Since Pellit’s reckless waste-disposal methods could result in the deaths of millions, killing him is the only moral thing to do, Kurt argues during a boozy venting session with Dale and Nick. Soon all three of them are plotting to bump off their respective bosses with the help of a gangster (Jamie Foxx) whose expletive-derived name more or less sums up the script’s idea of wit. Bumbling burglaries and high-speed car chases ensue, as “Horrible Bosses” splits the difference between the I’ll-kill-yours-if-you-kill-mine setup of “Strangers on a Train” (directly acknowledged here) and the anti-corporate ethos of “Office Space,” though it’s seldom as amusing or thrilling as that combo would suggest.
The manner in which the central scheme plays out is predictably moronic, vulgar and juvenile, though the parties involved just about make up for it. The three lead funnymen (all of whom honed their comedic chops on television) are seasoned enough to make their displays of bumbling ineptitude seem positively skillful, building a consistently amusing rapport while inhabiting well-defined types — Bateman the measured voice of reason, Sudeikis the group’s skirt-chasing id and Day the squeaky third wheel.
Structurally, there’s a certain deftness to the way various gags pay off down the road as plot twists; audiences will be gratified to know that the sight of Sudeikis, introducing a toothbrush to an orifice without teeth, is not entirely gratuitous. And director Seth Gordon (“Four Christmases”) seems to grasp that the pic’s kill-your-boss fantasy is primal enough to excuse, and perhaps even warrant, a crude, sloppy approach. Indeed, it’s hard not to wish the helmer had abandoned the safety net and pushed his characters into darker, more daring territory; there’s at least one moment of violence so shockingly abrupt it provides a brief glimpse of the edgier comedy “Horrible Bosses” could have been.
As it is, Gordon falls back on over-the-top comic exaggeration by stacking the deck against the three big, bad bosses, who shrewdly account for most of the movie’s collective star wattage. While Aniston seems to be having a fun, vampy time as a succubus in scrubs, she’s the most tangential figure in a film that radiates a casual, leering contempt for women; for his part, Farrell lets his awesome combover do most of the heavy lifting. That leaves Spacey’s ever-reliable snarl to carry the day, lending the pic a twisted energy it could have used more of.
Tech credits are appropriately grungier than the usual studio standard. Brisk pic doesn’t overstay its welcome.