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film review

Sometimes a movie is really all about the actors.

Horrible Bosses is a post- Hangover bad-behaviour farce about a trio of wage slaves – Jason Bateman as a financial company underling, Nick; Jason Sudeikis as a chemical company accountant, Kurt; and Charlie Day as a dental hygienist, Dale – who jointly decide to kill their three appalling supervisors.

What's not so good about Horrible Bosses is readily evident. The script's sloppy (for some reason, the English have been the masters of the murder-farce genre) and, in the last third, director Seth Gordon ( Four Christmases) tries to force the pace as the narrative collapses.

The calculated R-rated jokes about the various emasculation fears of the white male audience – skanky women, gay panic, scary black dudes – are tiresome. Yet, somehow, the comedy works.

What's right about Horrible Bosses is less easy to identify, but it comes down to something like esprit de corps. The three principal actors click. The looseness of the structure actually proves a benefit, allowing Bateman, Sudeikis and Day, all trained on television comedy, to bounce off each other, talk over each other and apparently pull lines out of the air. As the outtakes reel at the film's conclusion suggests, this was one of those Judd Apatow-style blends of script and improvisation, where the actors function as writing collaborators.

All three are white, middle-aging, unmarried men who don't like their jobs. Each is a type.

Saturday Night Live's Sudeikis plays an upbeat, mischievous and somewhat improbable ladies' man.

Day, from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, portrays a scratchy-voiced oddball with an embarrassing criminal record (an obvious nod to Zach Galifianakis's weirdo role in The Hangover).

The voice of bewildered reason is Bateman's Nick. Bateman is gradually emerging as a contemporary master of the slow burn. One of his best moments happens when his boss (Kevin Spacey) announces that he has decided to take over the job Nick had hoped for. The camera closes in on Bateman's blue-eyed faraway stare and you can almost see the moment when the tiny grenade of hate (Evelyn Waugh's phrase) explodes in his head.

The three horrible bosses are played by high-profile stars in small parts, led by Jennifer Aniston, as a spray-tanned, hypersexual dentist, purring obscenities like a porn star. Spacey more or less repeats his scenery-chomping role from Swimming with Sharks – a narcissistic psycho. The oddity is Colin Farrell, unrecognizable with his hunched-over posture and a ridiculous comb-over, as a coke-snorting homunculus who inherits his father's chemical factory and intends to run it into the ground.

They're caricatures who essentially exist in contrast to the three milquetoasts whom they abuse.

Nick, Kurt and Dale bungle their first brief misguided attempt to hire someone who does "wet work" via the Internet. Later, using statistical logic, they head to a bar in an area of Los Angeles with the highest reported number of carjackings, where they hope to find a killer for hire.

Instead, they get Jamie Foxx (in a crisp cameo), wearing a decorative skull tattoo. He plays a character who is big on street attitude, though not so good at math, who agrees to be their "murder consultant," rather than an actual assassin.

"Murder consultant" sounds like one of those jobs that exist in a dystopic Philip K. Dick story. Indeed, one of the interesting things about Horrible Bosses – like the Mike Judge workplace satire Office Space (1999) – is that it's about changing work roles. In some respects, the entire premise is anachronistic, based on the model of the owner-manager as tyrant. Almost everyone nowadays works for someone else – a chain of bosses, a board or a shareholders' group – and although contemptuous bosses may still exist in legions, managers have excuses. They can always blame their disrespectful behaviour on the decisions of their higher-ups.

Horrible Bosses

  • Directed by Seth Gordon
  • Written by Michael Markowitz, John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein
  • Starring Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, Charlie Day
  • Classification: 14A