Tuesday night, as my wife and I were leaving the press screening for Horrible Bosses, I caught a glimpse of a poster for Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush hanging by the theater’s front entrance. Eighty-six years stand between the release of that film and the one we’d just seen, and during that time America and American movies have changed dramatically. But even if The Gold Rush belongs to a bygone era, there’s a reason a poster for it is still hanging in the lobby of a modern-day theater; it’s still, after all these years, one heck of a funny movie.
Horrible Bosses, on the other hand, isn’t.
For anyone who hasn’t seen the ads, the movie is about three friends (played by Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day) who become so fed up with their tyrannical bosses (played by Kevin Spacey, Colin Farrell and Jennifer Aniston) that they decide to kill them, using a little advice from an ex-con (Jamie Foxx) as their game plan.
Or at least comedy is supposed to ensue. The reality is not much really happens. The main characters spend most of the time kvetching in sports bars and snooping around in mini mansions that are surprisingly vulnerable (doesn’t anyone own a burglar alarm anymore?). If the movie does manage a laugh are two, it’s almost by accident, as it’s too self-consciously crude to be genuinely funny. But I suppose calling an R-rated Hollywood movie crude is a bit like saying a dog is an animal.
Even still, not all crude humor is created equally. There are cases, as rare as they might be, where what is tasteless can be used responsibly to illustrate a point or provoke an audience to reexamine beliefs that have been taken at face value. I don’t say this to excuse anything, but I do think it’s a fact of modern comedy.
And with that in mind, Horrible Bosses is a horrible, horrible failure. There’s no larger point to the story other than what you can read on the surface. This is pandering—plain and simple.
But it’s what the people want, isn’t it? And if Hollywood is good at nothing else, it’s good at spoon-feeding us what we want with a snow shovel. Even during the industry’s earliest days, when Chaplin released The Gold Rush, Hollywood always produced fare that would appeal to the largest possible audience.
There’s a difference, though, between a movie like The Gold Rush and Horrible Bosses. In The Gold Rush, we can truly feel something for Chaplin’s tramp. When he sits alone in a candlelit cabin on New Year’s Eve awaiting company that will never come, we can laugh at his antics even as we keenly feel his sadness. In Horrible Bosses, the best we can do is identify, on an intellectual level, with the characters. We never feel a deep sense of kinship with them, though, because the movie lacks what is essential to all storytelling—a sense of humanity. And because it settles for something less, it ends up trivializing everything it touches, like a virus spreading through the bloodstream. Race, sex, murder, human life—they’re all fodder for jokes that say nothing at all, and in the crudest terms possible.
I have to wonder, though, if this will matter all that much to audiences. This summer, moviegoers made The Hangover 2 the highest grossing R-rated flick ever, and a third one is rumored to be in the works. If Horrible Bosses does well, don’t be surprised if another one comes along in year or two. It’s all part and parcel with our culture’s obsession with what’s “wrong” (as in, “Ha ha, dude, that’s so wrong ...”) and with what’s familiar. And if Hollywood does make another, all I can say is we’ll deserve it.
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