In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 classic thriller Strangers on a Train, a tennis star Farley Granger meets Robert Walker in a train compartment. Walker recognises the sportsman from the gossip rags and is aware of Granger’s marital problems. He proposes that if Granger were to kill Walker’s father and Walker were to take care of Granger’s wife, they’d both get what they want and neither of them would get caught because the killers would have no obvious motive.
Horrible Bosses uses this conceit of criss-crossed murders as a jumping off point. Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day are three long-time friends who completely hate their bosses: Kevin Spacey’s manipulative and sadistic corporate shark; Colin Farrell’s balding, coked-up kung-fu enthusiast; and Jennifer Aniston’s sex-pest dentist. With the help of an ex-convict named Motherf***er Jones (Academy Award-winning actor Jamie Foxx), they concoct a plan lifted from Strangers on a Train: they‘ll kill each other’s bosses. It’s a plan that could theoretically work were it not for the fact that all three friends are total idiots.
In setting up the plot, the screenwriters seem to be bending over backwards in order to create a situation where normal guys are willing to commit murder. Technically there’s nothing stopping any of them from quitting their jobs –apart from the inconvenience of finding a new one—plus Sudeikis and Bateman seem to have no qualms about killing a woman for the heinous crime of being sexually aggressive.
After a short period during which they scope out their targets’ houses, director Seth Gordon and his writers make it clear that none of them are actually going to do the deed. They completely defuse any stakes they’ve created by making it patently obvious that the guys are either too cowardly or stupid to commit murder: Sudeikis seems mostly preoccupied with getting laid while Day looks like he’s having a grand ol’ time hanging out with the guys.
Okay, we’re being a little harsh on Horrible Bosses because the writing is unnaturally lazy for a movie with this kind of talent behind it, but there is a certain charm that comes from its all-star cast. Spacey, Aniston and Farrell are all good in their slightly underwritten roles while Bateman and Sudeikis play well-honed straight-men. The real revelation of the movie however, is Charlie Day. Known to TV fans from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Day has taken the highly strung yet naive persona from that show and made it work for him on the big screen. In the same way that The Hangover made a star out of Zach Galifianakis, I imagine we’ll be seeing a lot more of Day in the near future.
Though the premise is weak and the characters are thinly written, the genial performances elevate Horrible Bosses into an entirely watchable affair.