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movies / July 10, 2011

American movies are dead and I’m attending the funeral. It’ll be a long-running funeral, I expect, with services that go on for years and years and years, and I’ll be there for most of ’em. My beloved movies! After so many years of devotion, it’s the least I can do—go look at the embalmed corpses at the cineplex. This week’s cadaver: Horrible Bosses.

Horrible Bosses is a weak, slack, sloppy, lazy mess of a movie about three middle-class white guys (played by Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, and Charlie Day) who decide to kill their monstrous employers. Technically and aesthetically, it’s so blah it doesn’t really need to be a movie at all, really. It could be a series of Saturday Night Live skits, or a community theater comedy, or a comic strip. It just happens to be a movie, that’s all. Written by TV guys, as it happens: Michael Markowitz, (producer of Becker), John Francis Daley (actor on House and Freaks and Geeks), and Jonathan Goldstein (writer/producer of Shit my Dad Says). And directed by some shmoe named Seth Gordon (Four Christmases plus a lot of TV) who knows enough to say “Action,” and “Cut” and laugh appreciatively at his actors’ ad-libbing, but no more. I assume the DP took care of keeping the camera pointed at the actors while they said lines, more or less. That’s the kind of movie it is.

But regardless, we’re desperate for a laugh—we’re like that character from a great old film called Sweet Smell of Success, who says with a jaded, queasy smile, “I’d walk a mile for a slight chuckle.” And some definite laughs seep through the mess of Horrible Bosses. This movie might do pretty well in our current humor-deprived environment. It was a fairly full house when I saw it, and the audience seemed hell-bent on finding it entertaining. A lot of straining for laughs, in general, on all sides of this project.

 

Horrible Bosses is doggedly topical, one of these “recession movies” we’re getting now that are topical but toothless. (Larry Crowne is clearly one of those, too.) In a crude, tone-deaf way, the movie spells out the premise to us: our three protagonists can’t quit their miserable jobs because there are no other jobs to be had, so everyone’s hanging onto whatever employment they’ve got no matter how foul. This makes it a boss-overlords’ paradise, because they can be as abusive as they want. Therefore, violent revolt in some form—in this case, murder—becomes the only answer. Otherwise, it’s all impotent suffering from here on out.

We all know this already, so it really is strange the way the movie labors to establish it: for example, a third of the way into the movie, when the guys are still considering quitting their jobs or at least defying their bosses, they meet an old friend who used to work for Lehman Brothers, a nerdy, plump, bespectacled fellow suited only to soft white-collar jobs, who has been reduced to panhandling and inept attempts at whoredom. (Tons of rape, impotence, sex-slave, and forced-prostitution jokes in this film.) It takes that level of belaboring the obvious to get the narrative gears of the film in motion.

And even then, the movie displays a strange timidity about the murders. The guys have recurring moral qualms, though their bosses are absurdly, loudly, openly, clownishly evil, way beyond even the bold malevolence one actually encounters in the world. I mean, we’re all experts here, we’ve all had horrible bosses; in many cases, outright sociopathic bosses. There are whole websites devoted to “Sociopathic Bosses”—g’head, look ’em up, they make for very informative reading. Such as the studies that suggest sociopaths do very well getting into management positions and ascending on upward, indicating that corporate and other institutional hierarchies are designed to favor sociopaths. The thing about sociopaths is, they’re excellent liars, and though they feel no empathy and have no sense of justice, most know enough to mimic respectable behavior. They tend not to prance around wearing devil’s horns like they do in Horrible Bosses, in which each boss announces a specific manifesto of evil.

The Kevin Spacey boss gets right in the face of Justin Bateman’s typically hesitant, rational-but-ineffectual character, and says, “You’re my bitch, I own you,” and declares his intention of enslaving him for life. The Jennifer Anniston boss is that in-your-dreams fantasy about the hot dominant female who sexually harasses her male employee (a lot of the film’s publicity centered on her supposedly surprising, raunchy turn, which is nothing to write home about), and who tells her whipping boy (Charlie Day) her plans to destroy him and his impossibly sugar-sweet fiancee. And ditto for the Colin Farrell boss—this character’s more a make-up stunt than anything, featuring a terrible bald-man’s comb-over and artful padding to make Farrell almost unrecognizable as a coke-head creep and sexual deviant who fancies himself a martial arts expert and brags to his shocked underling (Jason Sudeikis) that he intends to bankrupt the company by using it as his personal ATM.

This is a particular outrage because the company, before the Farrell-boss arrives, is a big corny symbol of lost American decency, a productive, blue-collar place featuring secure, happy workers and a nice boss played by Donald Sutherland with a big white mane of admirable-old-man hair. Sutherland kicks the bucket after two scenes, and his coke-hookers-and-nunchucks son takes over. If the son could just die, see, everything would be great again at the company (and in America).

Except it’s a chemical company, which blurs the wholesome image considerably. They really should’ve made it an ice cream factory. And such a nice old man having such a vile son suggests something wrong at a deeper level than individually horrible bosses whose deaths would solve everything. But never mind.

The movie only really gets traction in the brief period when the guys are acting on their decision to commit the murders, and are faced with the complex logistical problems involved. Just how do you go about murdering someone and getting away with it? How, for example, do you hire a hit man when you don’t generally travel in those social circles? First they try to get one using the internet, which doesn’t go well, and their next clueless-white-guy solution is to locate a dive bar in a terrible “urban” neighborhood; in other words, they figure on hiring a poor black man off the mean streets who they think will necessarily know all about killing. Jamie Foxx plays the guy they find, named Motherfucker Jones. (An excuse for lots of lines like “I’m sorry, but that’s not okay, Motherfucker.”) He quickly takes advantage of their idiocy and becomes their highly-paid “murder consultant,” basically by telling them the premise of the old Hitchcock film, Strangers on a Train.

 

That part is pretty funny.

It’s the first and third acts where all the dispiriting mushiness really gets you down: there’s such nervousness about getting the action going, and then in the end the movie ties itself in knots making sure the guys don’t actually commit these murders. Circumstances conspire to solve their problems for them while they stumble around haplessly—or actually, BECAUSE they stumble around haplessly, that being a virtue the comedy gods traditionally reward. The movie displays tremendous, depressing eagerness to return the protagonists to the delusional status quo, nothing changed, just the bad bosses conveniently gone so everything can go on the same in this, the best of all possible worlds. Couldn’t ONE of them at least have turned permanent outlaw vigilante by the end?

Only the Jason Bateman character gets the denouement we’re half-expecting: his old horrible Kevin Spacey boss is replaced by a new one just as horrible, or perhaps even more horrible, because he’s played by a famous old comedian in a cameo role representing, once again, old-time American decency. It’s supposed to be funny, but the scene dies with a sad gurgle. It just makes you feel tired and defeated. Bateman’s character is the protagonist who’s working in the generic corporate world we all know is evil, and that the movies have represented as evil for decades, since the 1960s at least with The Apartment and Point Blank and all those.

 

Or even since the 1920s and ’30s if you want to go back to industrial-mass-production-based evil like Metropolis and A Nous la Liberte and Modern Times. But still we can’t work up the courage and resolve to attack it all-out, we don’t know how to get at it, we don’t know what to try to replace it with, and it’s hard to laugh at that.

It’s a little too fitting, maybe, that Horrible Bosses goes all vague and mushy and out-of-focus in trying to represent what a happy ending would even look like. What WOULD it look like? As always, we’d strongly recommend torch-bearing mobs for starters—but after that, what?

American movies, being dead, have no suggestions or visuals aids to offer on the subject.

 

 

 

 

 

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32 Comments

Add your own

  • 1. Toni M  |  July 10th, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    How disappointing. I had hoped for more with Charlie Day and Bateman in there, with Kevin Spacey resuming his role from Swimming With Sharks. Then again, Bateman has been awful since Arrested Development, Spacey’s been busy with theatre and bathos, and Charlie Day is really only good with short bursts of extreme behaviour amongst irredeemable, loveable sociopaths.

  • 2. Soj  |  July 10th, 2011 at 8:07 pm

    At least in Falling Down the guy pulled the trigger himself, eh? 😉

  • 3. Dr. Luny  |  July 10th, 2011 at 10:10 pm

    I saw this recently because it was the only thing at the theaters that looked remotely watchable, and I like Day, Spacey, and Bateman. I’ve got to say I did like the movie, and even laughed a bit. Your points are well taken, but you’ve got to accept a film like this for what it is. You can’t expect Hollywood to make comedies that offer realism or social commentary. At best they can put a few good comedians and comic actors in front of a camera and let them be funny. Christ, could you imagine how horrible it would have been if someone had tried to direct this film?

  • 4. Strelnikov  |  July 10th, 2011 at 11:00 pm

    The dream sequence of a better world should just be snippets of Eisenstein’s “October 1917″….necrotic Hollywood just doen’t seem to know how to handle the real world, so instead of “Sullivan’s Travels” we get this “KILL THE BOSS – no, wait, I was kidding!” shit. The Conan O’Brian documentary was better, and that mofo is RELENTLESS.

  • 5. Will  |  July 10th, 2011 at 11:07 pm

    Great review as always, but I don’t think John Francis Daley has ever been on House.

  • 6. Trevor  |  July 11th, 2011 at 7:18 am

    It sounds like Disney trying to do an adaptation of Going Postal…

  • 7. Punjabi From Karachi  |  July 11th, 2011 at 9:44 am

    A good ending Eileen, but I would say this film does have some comedic value.

    Will watch it with friends. Because, beyond HP7 Part 2 (say a prayer of thanks for yourself Ms Jones, Harry Potter is ending) there really is nothing else to watch.

    I am also glad you referenced Modern Family and Arrested Development (Hello Jason Bateman) in your American-movies-are-dead film review of Transformers.

  • 8. Punjabi From Karachi  |  July 11th, 2011 at 9:53 am

    Oh funny enough, I was watching this 1962 documentary on Youtube on the Battle of Stalingrad (its from one of those no copyright movie Youtube channels) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ufd3QkhYu_4 and I reached the part where the Soviets are doing the great anti-Nazi counterattack 😀

    Since this is an implicit, alternatives-to-capitalism-and-the-dominant-paradigm sort of movie reviews + comment thread that I am starting, may I respectfully posit the Swedes, the Norwegians, the French and Anglo Canadians, and the non-Murdoch-but-slightly-Assange-ish Australians as an alternative development model? I think it would be appropriate, with the inclusion of the fact that entering these models, you would be aware that ennui and anomie would be a drawback you would have to fight back. You might have to accept more modest fare in fighting it back like Sweden’s “Let the Right One In” or Canada’s “Scott Pilgrim”, but I think you guys can cope. I realise fighting anomie and ennui are serious problems, but I am sure that the great American ingenuity machine, if it enters an alternative system, can enter with the openness of mind to be ready to deal with these problems, beyond a current alernative of installing plutocracy to keep you guys diverted from ennui and anomie. I think Americans are up to getting a new system.

    Now if you guys in America want something different to aspire I’m sure you can put your shoulder to the wheel and get it done.

  • 9. Anonymous  |  July 11th, 2011 at 11:05 am

    When even the concept of murdering your boss has been adapted and neutered by Hollywood cinema during the biggest grab of power in decades, things have gone wrong in a very bad way.

  • 10. aleke  |  July 11th, 2011 at 12:38 pm

    @8.

    Fuck your “alternative development models”. Those Western and Northern European havens you got going there are built on hundreds of years of blood, but most importantly, are still sustained by the misery of billions of people. Hell, it’s not only America which sustains their models with their imperialism, France still got an imperial streak, lookit poor Libya and Ivory Coast (don’t cry me your ‘humanitarian’ crocodile tears here either). Not to mention that as America is collapsing, so is all of Europe, why just look at the dumb-fuck generation coming up all across the First World (this has been a long time coming, though).

    No, there’s no ‘alternative development models’, and the most important people, the hungry and the oppressed, dont give a wit for your shitty propaganda fairytales about how ‘bad’ it was in Third World socialism. There are 1 billion people without adequate access to water, water wars breaking out, collapsing worldwide fish stocks, economic crises that only give way to more and more serious ones (this has been going on for decades, if not centuries), serious issues about corporate power and private armies. And you seriously got ‘Sweden’? really? how sheltered are you? Sweden is as nasty as the rest of the rich countries got to be to keep ahead of the rest of the world. Soviet Union seems like a paradise compared to what will be needed in such an apocalyptic world.

  • 11. Punjabi From Karachi  |  July 11th, 2011 at 2:58 pm

    Aleke, I’m saying fuck the rich and keep them on a tight leash. And this piece of news is for America, only. Where the fuck did Third World Socialism come from into this picture?

  • 12. Buckwheat Thomas  |  July 11th, 2011 at 6:23 pm

    Memsahib Elaine, if the movie was really that bad, why’d you waste your time and ours? Maybe you should take another look at Howard the Duck, then report back.

  • 13. Nonque  |  July 11th, 2011 at 6:25 pm

    How unsurprising!

  • 14. Viplavam  |  July 11th, 2011 at 10:32 pm

    @8, @11

    “Punjabi From Karachi” – what are you trying to say? I could not understand anything. Go get some basic English classes, Mr. Karachi.

    Eileen’s review is sad. It is #@#*ing sad that Hollywood is producing more and more drivel every year. Somebody needs to do something. For starters publish a list of the producers, scriptwriters who make these movies, get their pictures, plaster them all over LA and NYC and cover them in cow dung.

    Will they feel some shame at least then.

  • 15. Anonymous  |  July 11th, 2011 at 10:45 pm

    @9 I agree.

    When I first heard about this film I (rather naively) thought that it had the potential to be a sort of subversive film about the injustices of every-day capitalism, complete with daring every-day citizens finally unable to perpetuate the drudgery of their normal every-day consumerist lifestyle for even one day longer. I was thinking (or more accurately desperately hoping) for something along the lines of Fight Club.

    This was *WAY* too much to expect from a modern Hollywood film, I now realize. Having never seen this film, this review nonetheless conveys the sense that instead of making me laugh, it would probably inspire the kind of dead horror other Hollywood films like Saw or The Grudge could only *hope* to fill me with. This is something I’m only now coming to terms with about sad state of what passes nowadays for cinema in this country. The horror films make me laugh and the comedies are depressing.

    Anyway, what really interests me in a sort of conspiratorial-capitalists-in-a-smoke-filled-room way is what the overall “message” of the film seems to be, at least after reading this review. It seems to function as a kind of status-quo-reinforcing catharsis for the anxious US consumer/employee.

    The premise is depressing in that it suggests that these tyrannical bosses will continue their reign over their helpless employees indefinitely unless the employees actually murder them. Why is this depressing? I think it’s fair to say that Americans have already accepted that “dealing with” horrible bosses is an unavoidable part of life, and that one should simply “grin and bear it” although they may not exactly enjoy the experience. Horrible Bosses takes this repressed anger and converts into an elaborate and ultimately ineffectual fantasy that leaves the viewer with the feeling that it would be better not to attempt murder, and more generally not to attempt anything at all, since it was established earlier that these people (and by extension most people) lack the power to change anything beyond committing a capital offense.

    The viewer is left with a reinforced begrudging acceptance of injustice with no reasonable alternatives. The fantasy of meaningful change becomes a fantasy of murder, which stays a fantasy, and the every-day consumer returns to their ordained role.

    I honestly can’t tell if this plot was intentionally designed this way or if it’s merely a symptom of a greater society-wide sense of hopelessness, powerlessness and defeat, as well as an overall lack of creativity and imagination.

    Either way, I am disappointed and will never see this film except perhaps out of morbid curiosity.

  • 16. Punjabi From Karachi  |  July 12th, 2011 at 4:27 am

    Go get some basic English classes, Mr. Karachi.

    Oh get lost. I was having fun typing a stream of consciousness sommentary on what Eileen wrote.

    What are you trying to say?

    GET OFF YOUR ASS AND FIX SOMETHING ASSHOLE!!!

  • 17. Michael  |  July 12th, 2011 at 6:47 am

    @10
    Hey, the Swedes kicked Russian ass but they never had an empire elsewhere. Maybe they profited a little bit from the war (WW2), but nothing like the Swiss who took all the gold from dead Jews. I’m not Swedish, I’m Dutch and we’re a shitty people so I have to defend the Swedes instead.

  • 18. Viplavam  |  July 12th, 2011 at 11:57 am

    @16
    Mr. Karachi, Other than writing crap and that too with no grammar, why don’t you first do something to improve your local surroundings like STOPPING Punjabi landlords from SCREWING YOU on a daily basis.

  • 19. Punjabi From Karachi  |  July 12th, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    Oh my God another one.

    writing crap

    Oh fuck off, can’t a guy have some fun?

    that too with no grammar

    Who died and made you editor?

    improve your local surroundings

    I’m not in Pakistan right now. I’m on Mars.

    like STOPPING Punjabi landlords

    They’re a dying breed. They’re power’s degenerated three generations on after the British have left, to the point where they’re practically ceremonial. Power’s shifted in many cases to the cities, the government bureacracies, and been diversified amongst the private sector. The private sector hasn’t corporatised, yet.

    from SCREWING YOU

    I’m from the city angry man. Karachi to be precise.

    Terminal bitterness much?

  • 20. pearl fiddler queen  |  July 12th, 2011 at 2:46 pm

    speaking of embalmed corpses… eileen, you could please do a review of ‘tree of life’? the movie is everything that’s wrong with hollywood, too. (was it even made in the machine? no matter. it typifies the drivel).

  • 21. super390  |  July 12th, 2011 at 4:55 pm

    This Europe vs America namecalling is missing the point. America is what Europe was before the world wars. The wars were the result of rich white guys trying to stave off social justice movements via imperial kleptocracy and militarism, which eventually ran out of non-European targets and went white-on-white crime. The wars destroyed so many European myths that they’ve had nothing to believe in since then except the idea that if ordinary citizens are decently paid and healthy and educated they can manage to have a fairly comfortable, crusade-free existence.

    None of this has happened to America yet. We got off too easy from the Depression and its bookend wars, all we learned died with that generation and then the rich systematically began Reconstruction of the old order. Which means all the crimes o’ whitey can begin anew in America at any moment; the repeal of the 14th Amendment, the restoration of the Southern prison-labor system, perhaps even restoration of the inheritability of debt, which actually means serfdom despite what von Hayek thought.

    So, now that non-white countries are taking over big chunks of the world economy, when does America finally do the big freakout and suffer the crisis that finally gets us shooting our bosses and tearing down the monuments of our oppressors? How do we make sure that a neo-Franco doesn’t prevail and turn the country into a sweatshop for 40 years? How do the rebels reopen the lines of communication to the outside world, which Americans once gladly stole constructive ideas from?

  • 22. Viplavam  |  July 12th, 2011 at 7:24 pm

    @19

    okay, this response was better. So I’ll leave it there.

  • 23. Ryan  |  July 12th, 2011 at 8:41 pm

    It’s like the Fall song about the scriptwriters following me around. My criticisms of capitalism as a form of systemic economic rape are turned into jokes in a movie about oppressed wageslaves too cowardly to pull the trigger.

    Systematic abuse… It is the whole truth.

  • 24. aleke  |  July 13th, 2011 at 1:19 am

    Lmao “keep the rich on a short leash” Excuse me, but have you heard of Reagonomics? Are you fucking kidding me? hahaahha hahahahah keep the rich on a short leash hahaha ahahahahahahahhaahahha

  • 25. Jay  |  July 13th, 2011 at 3:21 am

    At least in “9 to 5” they tortured their boss. And that was a bunch of chicks.

    And, um, at the risk of sounding too obvious for the exiled’s cynical & aloof readership, since nobody mentioned it, I have to mention “Office Space.” Good movie, the office gets burned down, the perpetrator lives happily ever after, and the protagonist realizes he’d rather work construction — in reply to Dolan’s question “what do we replace [the corporate world] with.” Yes, we should all build houses and buy houses and flip houses and take out 3 mortgages on our houses. That’s the answer.

  • 26. CensusLouie  |  July 14th, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    Movies have gotten far worse the past decade and a half, but console yourself with the fact that television has gotten better.

    Yes, there is a LOT of crappy reality TV, but the best shows are better than anything from before. Our parents’ generation tries to convince us that Johnny Carson was the funniest person to ever live, but none of that boomer shit holds a candle to stuff like 30 Rock.

  • 27. required  |  July 15th, 2011 at 7:17 am

    I’m honestly disturbed by Larry Crowne. Besides the propaganda that the title character deserves to lose his job because he never went to college (this isn’t a detail, it’s actually the premise of the film, literally shouted in the trailer) in a country were college now means nothing and plenty of degrees are proving useless against unemployment, it’s so didactic. I keep expecting to see Cass Sunstein get a writing credit. It’s like a condescending instructional film starring your employers’ idea of you (“Aw Shucks!”), learning step by step to deal with their labor flexibility plans. The Soviet Union actually had toothier satire (“Miracle of Fate”) than this.

  • 28. Jimmy the hyena  |  July 17th, 2011 at 10:58 am

    Lots of people say burn Hollywod burn. But who really wants to see it happen? If it’s system could be bypassed in some way say movies financed in Germany and filmed in Vancouver, Melbourne or Eastern Europe. Then maybe their house of cards would come tumbling down.

  • 29. gkruz  |  July 20th, 2011 at 9:24 pm

    Well, what do you expect? Hollywood is part of the problem, not the solution. After the revolution, we won’t need movies. We will all be the stars in our own epics….

  • 30. vortexgods  |  July 21st, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    I’ve got my fingers crossed about “Hobo with a Shotgun.” The reviews say it’s mean-spirited, ultra-violent, and oddly sincere.

    Which, for a movie called “Hobo with a Shotgun” sounds like a home run.

  • 31. Jimmy the Hyena  |  July 22nd, 2011 at 11:43 am

    Sorry gkurz but I don’t really beleive there will be a revolution as such, as much as I would like it to happen. More a sort of systemic collapse. Then everyone will get into blaming everyone else for the problem. For example my case personally, I was unemployed in France and was forced to work as an English teacher in a completey bogus American business school. Everyone demonized me like some how stupid white trash like me was responsible for the post 9 11 crash. Yeah well maybe I’m white trash but I was born in Chicago the city that developed nuclear fission.

  • 32. ianf  |  September 24th, 2012 at 1:55 am

    @pearl fiddler queen | July 12th, 2011 at 2:46 pm
    http://exiledonline.com/horrible-bosses-straining-for-laughs/#comment-20

    > speaking of embalmed corpses…
    > ‘Tree of life’? the movie is everything
    > that’s wrong with hollywood, too

    Forgive my Johnny-come-lateness… so right you are. Get your delayed–but still–anti-Tree of Life fix here: 3 standalone tweet-capsule reviews, plus 3 @Storify’ied cumulative meta-reviews (twit-penned by)

    http://goo.gl/Va3SW (@letiff)
    http://goo.gl/HcshI (@aidanmadden)
    http://goo.gl/ldlVp (@Varouza)

    http://goo.gl/FttsR various authors
    http://goo.gl/DtUn1 various authors
    http://goo.gl/UB6ar two authors


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