You wouldn’t want Dave Harken as your boss. As played by Kevin Spacey in “Horrible Bosses,” Harken, an upper-tier executive at a white-collar cubicle farm, is belligerent, petty, heartless, prone to rage and jealousy, and, from time to time, downright sadistic.
Mr. Spacey plays Harken as a grotesque cartoon villain, a master of managerial menace (breezily demanding hellish work hours on short notice) and finely graded savagery (mocking an employee’s nickname for his dead grandmother). For his corporate underlings, including the hardworking but perpetually put-upon Nick Hendricks (Jason Bateman), he’s the devil, or worse. He’s also very, very funny.
“Horrible Bosses” isn’t for sensitive souls, or those susceptible to easy embarrassment. Like Mr. Spacey’s white-collar overlord, it’s a movie that frequently delights in wanton cruelty and forced awkwardness, as well as occasional outbursts of vulgarity. But it’s also appealingly absurd, and it deploys its wicked workplace hijinks with cleverness and a surprisingly light touch.
As the title indicates, Harken isn’t the only horrible boss to be found, nor Mr. Bateman’s Hendricks the only abused employee. Dental assistant Dale Arbus (Charlie Day) is a scruffy, scattered mouse of a man whose only goal in life is to be a good husband. That’s something of a challenge, however, given that the dentist he works for (Jennifer Aniston) is more than a little prone to hyperaggressive sexual come-ons.
Arbus’ plight doesn’t sound too bad to his friend, Kurt Buckman (Jason Sudeikis), a cad stuck working for his beloved boss’ crude, drug-addicted son Bobby (Colin Farrell) after the boss suffers a heart attack.
From the three bad bosses, the movie serves up a catalog of impossibly awful workplace wrongs. None of it is remotely believable — the comedy, especially when the bosses are involved, is broad and cartoonish throughout — but it’s frequently funny stuff.
It’s less funny, of course, to Harken, Arbus and Buckman. And before long, they have hatched a vague plot to kill each other’s bosses — an idea stolen from both Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train” and the 1987 Danny DeVito comedy “Throw Momma From the Train,” both of which are explicitly referenced.
Of the bosses, only Mr. Spacey manages any nuance. Miss Aniston plays up her smooth skin and inappropriate allure but seems reticent about the raunchy material. A persistently bug-eyed Farrell, sporting a half-bald comb-over that makes him nearly unrecognizable, has no such problem cutting loose.
The hectic and hilarious interaction between the leads — the trio specialize in a mumbling, chaotic crosstalk — is what holds the movie together. Mr. Day’s spazzy dental assistant steals any number of scenes, although he sometimes seems too eager to do so. Mr. Bateman once again displays his mastery of meek snark; his way with exasperation is exquisite.
It helps that they’ve got a solid story to work with. None of its comedic revelations are groundbreaking, but the script by Michael Markowitz, John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein makes expert use of a simple concept, carefully setting up a regular stream of payoffs and punch lines.
There’s nothing groundbreaking in the movie’s performance, but as silly summer comedy goes, “Horrible Bosses” gets the job done.
TITLE: “Horrible Bosses”
CREDITS: Directed by Seth Gordon; script by Michael Markowitz, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein
RATING: R, for vulgarity, drug use, workplace cruelty
RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS