The ads for Horrible Bosses don’t mince words. They mean to make clear the flaws of each boss: David Harken (Kevin Spacey) is a psycho, Bobby Pellit (Colin Farrell in Les Grossman mode) is a tool, and Dr. Julia Harris (Jennifer Aniston) is a man-eater. As we come to find in the film, each is also the employer of one of three best friends. Nick (Jason Bateman), Kurt (Jason Sudeikis), and Dale (Charlie Day) meet every night to lament their hostile work environments. Finally reaching their breaking points, the friends decide that, the economy being what it is, their only options are prostitution or murder.
Murder, it is.
Of course, Nick, Kurt, and Dale are “good guys”, driven to their brinks by utterly awful bosses. Nick has slaved for Harken for years, trying to earn a promotion, only to have Harken take the job himself. Kurt, the only one who has loved his job up to this point, is forced to participate in Pellit’s discrimination and undeniable sleaziness in order to stay employed. And then there’s Dale, sexually harassed and blackmailed by the beautiful but crass Dr. Julia. Naturally, Dale’s plight is mostly mocked by the other two, who repeatedly tell him, “Yours doesn’t sound that bad, actually.”
Yes, they’re trying to figure out how to be “men”. And no, they have no idea how to kill anyone. So they seek out a hired gun, that is, the nearest black man in the roughest neighborhood. Engaging the services of Dean “MF” Jones (Jamie Foxx), they are finally convinced to kill off each others’ bosses à la Strangers on a Train. Predictably, as they take his advice, they discover their own inner horribleness.
Their ineptitude as killers is indeed comical and revealed in some genuinely surprising ways. Director Seth Gordon avoids belaboring each outcome to redundancy, instead leaving audiences to fill in the obvious blanks. He’s helped in this by his three primary actors, who deliver credible performances no matter how ludicrous the circumstances. Bateman, especially, does what he does best, playing the only seemingly sane one of the bunch, as well as the most entertainingly sarcastic.
On the other hand — and as we’ve all heard repeatedly — Jennifer Aniston’s role is not only broadly stylized but also a huge departure for her. That’s not necessarily a good thing. Essentially, she has a small, flashy part in a standard buddy film. As such, it treats women, and especially Aniston’s character, in familiar ways — either ignored or openly maligned. Sure, Dr. Julia is one of the villains, but her male counterparts are given some excuse for their awful behavior, however feeble: Pellit’s is drug-fueled and Harken’s, in large part, is spurred on by his faithless wife (Julie Bowen).
Julia, however, just is. Horrible Bosses offers no context or motivation for her sexual aggression, which extends beyond harassing Dale to victimizing patients and betraying other women. While it’s implied that she’s been harassing him for some time, Julia goes into overdrive when she learns Dale is now engaged to sweet, but vapid, Stacy (Lindsay Sloane). It’s doubtful Julia’s urgency to conquer Dale is fueled by her “respect” for marriage (despite her claims to the contrary). This leaves us with the following: she’s not only a “man-eater”, but determined to crush other women, as well. Julia’s a threat to everyone.
The movie’s set of equations (essentially, who deserves what and who mirrors whom) turns complicated when we consider that Julia is very much like the man assigned to kill her, Kurt. In a bar however, he’s quick to excuse himself to go chase after a beautiful girl, saying, “Excuse me, I need to go see a woman about her vagina.” While there may not be much of a difference between this comment and Julia’s “Shabbat, shalom, somebody’s circumcised,” she is the one both mocked and marked for murder, while Kurt is mildly scolded by his slightly better-mannered friends. All three guys worry whether the others will be able to go through with the deal they’ve made. Unlike his buddies, Kurt has an appallingly misogynistic back-up plan: “I’ll fuck the crazy out of her,” he proclaims, because a bad woman can be set straight by a strong man turning her aberrant behavior back on her.
Julia’s need for redemption — however perverse — is only made more pronounced by the fact that she’s played by Aniston. Her raunchy turn here is generating plenty of press for the film. And Aniston has played her part in this as well, pointing out how “different” the role is, for her and for “women”. “It’s usually the male character in that role,” she says. “That’s why I thought of her like a guy.” While Aniston may be playing against her own type, that only underscores the other half of this problem: in popular imagery, still, women are too often one thing or another, man-eaters or good girls, whores or virgins. Would anyone care if, say, Kathy Griffin was playing Julia? And doesn’t all this attention sound a lot like the stories surrounding nice girl Demi Moore’s man-eating in 1994’s Disclosure?
We might say it’s a plus that Aniston’s performance here appears less strained than her previous efforts to leave Rachel behind (see: Derailed). It also confirms that comedy is her strong suit. Neither of these points is compelling news, though. Whether either of them justifies her complicity in a project so overdetermined to punish and degrade its women is another question altogether.