Review: ‘Horrible Bosses’ Could Use a Bit More Horrible

There are worse ways to spend 100 minutes in air-conditioning, but the new “mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore” comedy suffers from a failure of nerve

Hate your job? Hate your boss? Wish you had a job and a boss to hate?

Well-paid Hollywood creative types feel your pain.

Last week’s box-office misfire “Larry Crowne” sprang out of today’s recessionary times like a sale on bulk ramen at Costco, while the recent “Bad Teacher” looked for dark-hearted, mischievous laughs from the drudgery of the daily grind.

There are worse ways to spend 100 minutes in air-conditioning, yes, but the similarly themed “Horrible Bosses” displays a failure of nerve that keeps it from being a really memorable comedy.

LIke its two recent predecessors, this movie isn't nearly as mad-as-hell-and-not-gonna-take-it-anymore as it should be, even though the current have/have-not divide has audiences hungry for some balls-out vengeance against The Man.

Nick (Jason Bateman), Dale (Charlie Day) and Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) are a trio of pals since high school who all find themselves miserable in the workplace: Nick works for the sadistic and cruel Dave (Kevin Spacey), who dangles a promotion in front of Nick only to snatch it away after months of drudge work; Dale, implausibly, is the victim of constant sexual harassment on the part of his man-eating dentist boss Julia (Jennifer Anniston); and Kurt — who actually loves his job at a chemical company — has to watch doofus cokehead Bobby (Colin Farrell, sporting a paunch and a comb-over) take over after the firm’s founder drops dead of a heart attack.

All three are trapped under these titular monsters for one reason or another (Dave threatens to blackball Nick from the industry if he leaves; Dale’s a registered sex offender because of something he did in a playground, never mind the fact that it was the middle of the night and no kids were there), so murder seems to be the answer.

They go to the seediest bar they can find and get assistance from Jamie Foxx, playing a character whose name can’t be printed here, and since they can’t afford to hire him as a hit man, he becomes their “murder consultant” for a reduced fee and suggests that the way to avoid suspicion is to kill each other’s bosses. (Which, of course, leads to Dale confusing “Throw Momma from the Train” with “Strangers on a Train.”)

Naturally, this troika of twits mucks things up at every turn. They remind each other not to leave fingerprints or DNA at the future crime scenes, but Kurt can’t help putting Bobby’s toothbrush, and practically everything else in his bathroom, down his pants. And when they try to blackmail corporate barbarian Dave, it’s clear that these guys are way, way out of their depth.

“Horrible Bosses” is consistently funny — there’s an extended bit involving a box of Bobby’s cocaine that ranks up there with the immortal sneeze gag from “Annie Hall” — but it lacks the driving pace and frenetic energy that it so desperately needs. Comedies about murder should give you laughs of shock and surprise, but this movie is content to just coast along with its marshmallow center of good-hearted bumblers.

It’s probably not much of a help that Spacey’s the only one of the three bosses who brings any kind of menace and danger to the proceedings. (Aniston looks great, but her character makes almost no sense, and Farrell seems to have been largely cut out of the movie.

It’s too bad that the script (by Michael Markowitz, Jonathan M. Goldstein, and “Freaks and Geeks” star John Francis Daley) isn’t as consistently sharp as the three stars — Sudeikis and Day, as they did in the underrated “Going the Distance,” bounce off each other hilariously, and their manic energy is balanced perfectly by Bateman’s slow burn.

And even Foxx, who can often come off as terminally self-impressed on screen, gets some prime moments, particularly when he explains why he served jail time. (The scene involves probably the first and last joke you’ll ever hear built around “Snow Falling on Cedars.”)

In typical frat-boy fashion, “Horrible Bosses” treats its female characters with contempt when it even bothers to think about them. Here’s how the four principal female speaking roles break down: sex-crazed dentist Julia, who’s basically out to rape underling Dale; Dale’s fiancée (Lindsay Sloane), a sweet-faced blank; Dave’s sexy wife (Julie Bowen, criminally misused), who has a quickie with Kurt during Dave’s surprise birthday party; and a co-worker of Kurt’s (Celia Finkelstein) whom everyone thinks is pregnant but is actually just heavy. Ha ha! Fat chicks!

While this is certainly a step up from director Seth Gordon’s previous feature, the treacly “Four Christmases,” the former documentary filmmaker (“The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters”) could really make a name for himself if he can figure out how to marry his skill at comedic set-ups with the incisive sense of storytelling he brought to his non-fiction work. But for now, “Horrible Bosses” is, at best, a step in the right direction.