Monday, July 11, 2011

Labor Movements

I'm not entirely sure how to take Horrible Bosses (2011, directed by Seth Gordon). It's a sterling example of a film that sets out to offend every sensibility (and succeeds) in the name of comedy. I've maintained for years that the only yardstick for comedies is the question, "Is this funny?" Obviously, this is subjective. I'll get this out of the way right now, then: I laughed my ass off at Horrible Bosses. So, yeah, it's funny. End of story, right? Right?

Well, it's not as cut and dried as that, because even though it's intentionally offensive, it's also unintentionally offensive. I say I laughed, and I did, but I also squirmed a bit in my seat, and I feel a LOT conflicted about laughing at it. Dirty about it, actually. There's an old joke: Q: "How many feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?" A: "THAT'S NOT FUNNY!" I so don't want to be that person. I don't. But, y'know, I find myself drifting that way.

Horrible Bosses finds two of our three protagonists working for the worst bosses ever. Nick works for Dave Harken, a man who dangles a promotion in front of Nick as bait and then takes the position himself. All the while, he lords over Nick with the fact that he "owns" him. Dale, a dental assisstant, works for Julia Harris, DDS. Julia is a sexual harasser of the first order, and is bound and determined to get into Dale's pants before he can get married. Only Kurt has it good. He works for a chemical company where his boss is the kindly, wise Jack Pellit. Unfortunately for him, Jack dies of a heart attack about ten minutes into the movie, leaving the company to to his monstrous cokehead son, Bobby. All three of our protagonists feel trapped in their jobs by the current economy. One night over drinks, it occurs to them that their problems could be solved if they killed their bosses. To this end, they go looking for an assassin, and end up with a "murder consultant" by the name of Motherfucker Jones. He coaches them on how to do in their respective nemeses. Mayhem ensues.

Let's start with the obvious: this movie is a product of the zeitgeist. It's very much of the moment in its depiction of workers trapped in an economic climate that puts them at the mercy of employers. It suggests that employers, given the license to do so, will abuse their underlings. It's a film that ought to take the side of the worker. Yet, somehow, it doesn't challenge the status quo in any meaningful way. This becomes a film about personal vendettas. It doesn't subvert the institutions in which it dwells. Jason Bateman, it seems, is not Groucho Marx, and contemporary corporate feudalism is not Fredonia. This in itself is kind of disappointing, but it's not surprising, either. I doubt that that kind of critique will ever issue from a major studio ever again.

The subtle (and not so subtle) apologism for white male privilege is a bit more disturbing, though. There are a ton of little things in this movie that rub me wrong. There are two huge things that rub me wrong. The first is the whole subplot about Jennifer Aniston's sexy dentist being a rapist, with her poor, hapless assistant being the victim. The film loads this particular subplot with all kinds of extenuating circumstances: Dale (Charlie Day) is a convicted sex offender who was sent up for exposing himself on a playground. He did this at night to take a piss when there were no children present, the movie is at pains point out, so part of the joke is that a woman is turning the tables on a man who has been wrongly targeted for sexual misbehavior. Also part of the joke is the notion that Dale's situation "isn't quite so bad" as the situations in which Nick and Kurt find themselves, particularly after they see what Dr. Julia looks like and they pronounce her "hot." So you basically have a couple of guys dismissing the notion that Dale has been raped as no big thing. The movie doubles down on this when it indulges in a line of jokes about which of our trio of protagonists is the most "rapable" in prison when things start to turn south on them. This is all pretty reprehensible shit. Almost as reprehensible is the way it presents Jason Sudeikis's character, Kurt. As bad as the bosses in the title are, Kurt is just as bad. When we first see him, he's harassing a pretty FedEx delivery woman. During the course of the film, he leaves his friends out to dry in order to sleep with both Julia, and Dave Harken's wife. The only thing separating him from Julia is the script's insistence that he's a good guy. He's a good guy by fiat, rather than by his actions. But he's not. He's totally not. He's one of those stumbling, apologetic racists, he's a horndog creep, and he's an unreliable fuck-up to boot. I wouldn't want to work for him, even if he does defend the fat and disabled people in his office from the depredations of Colin Ferrel's cokehead boss (they don't need it--there are laws for that), or if he condescendingly casts himself as the savior of a village in Bolivia. For the most part, all of this plays like a defensive action against the perceived infringements on white male privilege, and it all pretty much sucks. I dunno, maybe there's a meta-level to this that I'm missing. Somehow, I doubt it.

But, as I say, it's a funny movie. Part of the fun is watching the actors playing the bosses. Kevin Spacey can play this kind of role in his sleep, so it's to his credit that he invests Dave Harken with a completely scabrous personality. But Spacey is playing to type. Jennifer Aniston is not. Part of the fun of her character is watching an actress primarily known for good girl roles in romantic comedies completely shed her screen image. Most of her roles have had the effect of unsexing her. Here, she reclaims that with a vengeance. And then there's Colin Ferrel, nearly unrecognizable as Bobby Pellit. He gets the least amount of screen time of the three, but he makes the most of it. He's loathsome and manic/annoying at the same time. Our trio of heroes are all but blown off the screen by these three. Jason Bateman seems to know instinctively that he's the straight man here, and he channels his Michael Bluth character to that end. It's not a stretch for the actor, but he's good at this kind of character, so it works. Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day, on the other hand, are actively trying to take the spotlight, and they can't quite manage it, in spite of the focus the filmmakers' direct at them. This is a problem of star power, actually. Spacey, Aniston, and Ferrel all have "it." Sudeikis and Day do not. It's an asymmetrical balance of power, though it's one that tends to work in the movie's favor.

In any event, I don't think I can dissect why the movie is funny. Humor, like horror, tends to evaporate if you pick it apart, and if you have to explain a joke, it isn't funny to start with. Horrible Bosses manages this in spite of elements I can't stand, which is a testament to some kind of low cunning at the very least. Or maybe it says something about me, instead, and that, too, is something I'm hesitant to examine too closely. I do have to give the devil his due: It's been a while since I laughed that hard at a movie, and that's all the excuse I need, I guess.

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