A pink slip for a "horrible" summer comedy. 

Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis, and Jason Bateman

Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis, and Jason Bateman

I saw a couple of movies from the 1970s last weekend — Robert Altman's California Split and Werner Herzog's The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. But I shouldn't have watched them. Don't get me wrong. I enjoyed those two movies enormously. They gave me hope for film as both an entertainment and art form. However, they also made everything else I've been seeing in theaters look trite/callow/impermanent. Even in the best of times, enjoying summer movies as disposable, forgettable product requires some willful ignorance. And watching summer movies without weeping openly for the death of film culture demands the naivete of a Holy Fool. Most of the time, I can perform the doublethink necessary to endure Green Lantern, Thor, et al. For one weekend, though, I forgot to play dumb. As a result, my opinion of Horrible Bosses changed. What I thought of as a forgettable 100 minutes at the movies mutated into a stillborn monstrosity right before my eyes.

Horrible Bosses' subject is its selling point, and it's a good subject for both comedy and drama. In fact, I believe The Shawshank Redemption is popular partly because it's a soul-satisfying fantasy about getting the best of one's boss.

There's no serious or satirical edge to Horrible Bosses, a flat and sluggish film packed with former TV stars huddling in groups to reduce the size of the screen. The film's development pitch is its plot: three mid-level employees (played by Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, and Charlie Day) who are ritually humiliated by their three bosses (played by Kevin Spacey, Colin Farrell, and Jennifer Aniston) decide to kill their superiors out of a vague sense of social justice.

Sudeikis, Bateman, and Day describe their bosses with three-word phrases that assign their nemeses the fewest possible character traits. And the actors playing the bosses do little to flesh out the descriptions. Farrell's extended cameo is nondescript. Spacey is on autopilot, which he's been on since 1999. And as the third horrible boss — a randy dentist identified as an "Evil Crazy Bitch" — Aniston is painfully miscast. Aniston is certainly good-looking, but no amount of ogling or dirty talk makes her a credible sex fantasy; even her peekaboo strip tease is disappointing. Her desperate work here makes one long for 1999's Office Space, a superior workplace comedy where she had a fine supporting role.

In a vain attempt to discover laughs, director Seth Gordon often crams Bateman, Sudeikis, and Day into a confined space like a dive-bar booth or the back seat of a police car. Then he crosses his fingers, lets the camera roll, and hopes they will say something funny. Occasionally, they do.

Day puts in some honest Charlie work here, but he's the only member of the cast with any enthusiasm. Trust me — just watch the "How To Read a Table" scene from California Split on YouTube. That film was released in August 1974. It's what summer movies used to be.

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Horrible Bosses
Rated R · 100 min. · 2011
Official Site: horriblebossesmovie.warnerbros.com/index.html
Director: Seth Gordon
Writer: John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein
Producer: Brett Ratner and Jay Stern
Cast: Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis, Jennifer Aniston, Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx, Kevin Spacey, Donald Sutherland and Julie Bowen

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