One funny-strange development in recent screen comedy is that plot now appears to be less important than the initial pitch and the personnel employed to flesh it out: it explains the number of high-profile cameos casting around in search of the jokes in films that have to be improvised because nobody's gone to the expense of putting anything down on paper. (And also why the Apatow films, with their old-fashioned adherence to such concepts as character development and emotional throughlines, stand head and shoulders above the likes of Wedding Crashers, Grown-Ups and The Hangover.)
Horrible Bosses is a one-line idea that's somehow ended up in the multiplexes, shrewdly tailored to meet the needs of that (presumably large, and growing) demographic who have recently come to be refused promotions and payrises, and are generally expected to feel lucky indeed, in the present financial climate, to be in any form of employment whatsoever - basically, anyone who eats shit for a living. It has a certain utilitarian quality, but that hardly qualifies it as a must-see. The pitch is obvious: three everymen stiffs team up to murder their employers. More thought has been given to the participants, so we have nice guy Jason Bateman, trapped beneath the heel of growling corporate asshole Kevin Spacey; blue collar Jason Sudeikis, the object of ridicule for boss's son and general douche Colin Farrell; and meek, devoted Charlie Day, plaything of sexually harassing dentist Jennifer Aniston.
Strangers on a Train (amusingly muddled up with Throw Momma From the Train) is cited as a precedent, but Horrible Bosses in fact suffers from all the usual flaws of the common-or-garden New American Comedy. Shot fast and cheap on digital kit, it looks like nothing very much on screen, though maybe director Seth Gordon (Four Christmas, another one-line job) was trying to summon up the look of bland suburban frustration. More limiting to the film's chances of crossover success is its hopelessness with women: Aniston is allowed to be rather more tart than in her romcoms, but she's barely a character as such, more the embodiment of a particular male fear (the sexually aggressive female), decked out in spray tan and latex gloves.
As a vision of modern labour relations, Horrible Bosses is patently nonsense, spending most of its effort on the rabble-rousing business of making the bosses as comically hateful as possible, but it's sporadically funny nonsense. Whatever juice it has to make it pass the time on future long-haul flights derives entirely from the chemistry between the three male leads: it's a 21st century Three Stooges movie, if that reference still means anything to anyone, that doubles up as a platform for people we want to see in more movies. Maybe not Sudeikis, very much the Joe Piscopo of this generation of Saturday Night Live graduates, whose screen persona remains indistinct, if not outright mouldy (does the cinema really need another schlubby tailchaser?), and who still has a lot of Hall Pass to atone for.
But certainly Bateman, back to the clipped precision of his Arrested Development timing, and lending class to even the film's sloppier sequences: he's particularly well matched with Spacey, the latter displaying his usual unimpeachable instincts. Day, too, whose castrato rhythms - fostered on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the great sociopathic-comic opera of our times, Curb Your Enthusiasm's unruly younger brother - are entirely sui generis, if still perhaps a shade exhausting over the feature-length haul. If I can't make any great claims for the rest of it, these two, at least, deserve better bosses: directors who do the paperwork, put in the hours, and know how to make of these things more than mere timewasters.
Horrible Bosses opens in cinemas nationwide tomorrow.