I've noticed that theatrically-released comedies tend to mirror a single generation's maturation process. Pleasant, G- and PG-rated family comedies fill the cineplexes until someone makes a more grown-up comic take on the genre, usually a turn towards less-genial wisecrackery and a little more bodily function humor. Then those naughty PG-13 stories dominate the listings until they eventually cede to more explicit (and R-rated) adult comedies, which allow the target audience (by now ranging in age from late-teens to twenty-somethings) to view just enough sex and drug and bathroom humor to feel like they've seen something their parents would blanch at and/or foam about. But then time passes as it has wont to do, and the audience's interests give way to gentler PG-13 rom-coms, which allow them to be thinking more tender thoughts of hearth and home as they settle into those respective parental roles they hadn't considered in prior years. By this phase of life, they've become much more receptive to the pleasant, non-threatening family comedy (again rated G or PG) -- because they sure-as-shootin' don't want their kids watching the stuff they watched.
Based on current trends, my guess is that the current moviegoing generation is in its raunchy R-rated comedy phase, as indicated by 2009's surprise smash "The Hangover," as well as this year's equally popular sequel, plus the recent hit "Bridesmaids." The rising tide of racy comic misadventures continues with the new Warner Bros./New Line Cinema film "Horrible Bosses."
The story revolves around a trio of male friends (Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day) who all have the problem that gives the film its title. Bateman's boss (played by Kevin Spacey with his patented version of smug self-satisfaction that barely conceals a reptilian bloodthirst) is a corporate president that dangled a promotion just a few inches beyond the younger man's grasp for several months, only to snatch it away. Sudeikis had a boss he loved (Donald Sutherland, memorable in a brief on-screen role), but now -- thanks to an unfortunate turn of events -- is stuck answering to the man's paranoid, cocaine-addled son (Colin Farrell, continuing to show his skill as a character actor, not to mention a lack of ego as he takes on one of filmdom's more legendary on-screen comb-overs). Day's employer (Jennifer Aniston, a million miles away from her usual romantic comedy roles) isn't merely aggressive or brazen as she sexually harasses and harangues him, she's apparently approaching psychosis at near light-speed in her lust-filled yet joyless pursuit of her happily engaged employee.
The three men throw around the possibility of killing their bosses one night, which they dismiss as being something they can't do -- but then they consider that they could hire someone to do it for them. This leads to a meeting with a mysterious ex-con (Jamie Foxx, very funny here playing a man with an unprintable-in-this-paper first name) at a dive bar. For a sum of money, he offers his services as a "murder consultant," meaning he won't commit the crimes, but he will help them develop the plan.
What does he come up with? The ex-con suggest that each man commit another's murder, just like in Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train" (which Day's character immediately confuses with Danny DeVito's darkly comic "Throw Momma from the Train," another movie that also intentionally owes a debt to the classic thriller), but make all of the deaths look like accidents. From that scene on, the movie takes flight, with an almost unending stream of funny set-pieces as the three men bumble their way through attempts to gain intelligence on their targets and figure out the best ways to cause their tormentors to pass from this mortal coil, all the while trying to ignore their better natures.
The earliest portions of the movie -- where we meet our heroes and their individual villains -- are a tad uncomfortable, even for a dark comedy. It doesn't take very long for you to see that the titular bosses are as horrible as advertised; to my mind, the movie insists on giving you one scene too many of wretched behavior before we meet Foxx's character at the bar. But again, once that happens, the movie kicks into gear and doesn't look back.
The performances by Bateman and Sudeikis are strong, as well as the supporting work by the "bosses," but the real breakthrough star in this movie is Day. Best known for his work on the (also dark and hilarious) FX comedy "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," Day hits a home run here, playing a believably mild and romantic soul whose heart belongs to his fiancee and her alone. As the story progresses, it becomes clearer and clearer to the audience that the very idea of giving in to his boss' crude come-ons makes him not just angry or upset, but could very well push him past his breaking point.
Be forewarned, the R-rating is earned early (very early, in fact) and often (yep, very often, too); this isn't one of those movies that you should be bundling the kids into the car to see. (They'll have time for movies like this when they're older, and you're the one complaining about such racy hijinks. Cue "The Circle of Life.") For adult audiences, however, "Horrible Bosses" is well worth seeing. While it doesn't break any ground in the subgenre of risque comedies, it does pass the key test -- it's actually funny. I'd even go so far as to say that it's one of my favorite comedies so far this year. Three and a half stars (out of four).