By Preston Wilder
Energy is a terrible thing to waste. Manic energy, from the Marxes to Jim Carrey, has always been one of the hallmarks of American comedy (much more so than, say, British comedy) – and it was manic energy that made Horrible Bosses such a pleasant surprise three years ago. Nick, Kurt and Dale (Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day, respectively) set out to murder their bosses – but in fact they argued over everything, from how to find an address to whether “bend her over a barrel and show her the 50 states” was or was not a well-known phrase. Kurt claimed it was, the others replied they’d never heard of it. And on it went.
The energy is still there in Horrible Bosses 2, ditto the endless arguments – now supplemented with occasional slapping and cuffing, making the resemblance to the Three Stooges even more obvious. Nick is Moe, forever trying to keep order and ignore the others’ idiocy; Dale is Curly, prone to sudden infantile screeching (“I always sit in the middle!”); Kurt isn’t quite Larry, more an easily-distracted cretin who fancies himself a ladies’ man. Nor is the energy confined to the central trio. Chris Pine is a bundle of manic mood-swings as a rich sociopath, Christoph Waltz hammily sinister as his tycoon father (our heroes’ plan is to kidnap the son and extort money from the father). And of course there are generous cameos for the characters from the first film: Kevin Spacey as abusive (and now incarcerated) Dave Harken, Jennifer Aniston as sex-addicted Dr. Julia Harris, and Jamie Foxx as Motherf***er Jones whose name, needless to say, comes without the asterisks.
Here’s the thing about the film: a year from now, when it’s showing on TV, you could watch any random 10 minutes and have a good time. It’s the same all the way through: the three guys talk at once, get in each other’s way, mis-hear “cogs” as “cocks”, argue over whether their new invention should be known as a “Shower Buddy” or a “Shower Daddy”, etc. But that’s the problem – it’s the same all the way through. At 108 minutes (and without the freshness of the original), the sequel can’t rely purely on energy. It flags, then sputters, then grows actively tiresome long before the inevitable end-credits outtakes.
Everything seems a bit slapdash here. Were the boys so stupid in the first film? The joke was ordinary office drones out of their depth as they play at being criminals – but what can you say when their ‘plan’ to gain entry to a house is simply to try the front door and hope it’s unlocked? (There’s a 50-50 chance, claims Kurt.) Nick is the voice of reason, but the dynamic is now out of balance – he’s the grown-up killjoy, the other two little better than halfwits. Nor do the special guest stars get much to do: Spacey just hurls abuse, Aniston is a sex machine. Admittedly, the bosses were always cartoons (that was the point) – but even the cartoons seem narrower and more repetitive now, like a Donald Duck defined solely by his quack.
The film has its moments. The tweaking of clichés is nicely done, like the slo-mo walk that turns out to be our heroes walking in slow motion (a passer-by ruins the effect by walking normally) or the bit where Nick pokes his head around a wall, then Dale – then Kurt simply walks past instead of completing the cliché by poking his head out too. The bickering has the feel of being improvised (though it probably isn’t) – and the film also works as a Time-capsule, like many comedies, reflecting the state of American society in the mid-10s. Fears over NSA bugging get a mention, ditto anxieties over racism (Dale is told he has “Klan eyes”; the boys are very embarrassed when they realise ‘Nick Kurt’ sounds like ‘nigger’), ditto the bending-over backwards to avoid looking homophobic: Nick pretends to be gay for Dr. Julia’s sake, and the others make a big show of being supportive. And of course there’s the overall sourness, the sense – as Waltz puts it – that the American Dream is now “made in China”, the resentment of the 1 per cent who just keep getting richer: “The only thing that creates wealth is wealth”.
All well and good – but no-one watches comedies for the social comment. Horrible Bosses 2 adds nothing to the first film, dumbs it down even further and, like most Hollywood sequels, makes the mistake of going bigger when it should’ve gone smaller. Now that we know these characters it might’ve been fun to watch them with their families, or just hanging out, instead of embroiling them in an ever-more-outlandish plot spiced with crude humour. There’s enough energy here to run half of Cyprus, but it just gets frittered away. It’s a shame, really.
DIRECTED BY Sean Anders
STARRING Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, Charlie Day
US 2014 108 mins.