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'Horrible Bosses' Squanders Promising Premise

From left: Kevin Spacey, Jason Bateman and Charlie Day butt heads in Horrible Bosses, opening today at the AMC Metreon and the Regal Jack London in Oakland.

What has Jason Bateman done to deserve this? So often cast as the lone voice of reason in a world of hysterical nitwits, the Arrested Development star is rarely given roles that take advantage of his exceptional comic timing and his uncommon ability to engage audiences even when trapped in movies as brainless as last year’s Couples Retreat.
 
Horrible Bosses, the new high-concept comedy from The King of Kong director Seth Gordon, doesn’t exactly buck that trend, though it’s hardly the most egregious misstep on Bateman’s résumé. Credit Gordon and lead screenwriter Michael Markowitz with pushing for the erstwhile Teen Wolf to play Nick, an office drone routinely emasculated by his bullying supervisor (Kevin Spacey).
 
It’s just a shame Nick’s partners in crime are such insufferable boobs. They are Dale (Charlie Day) and Kurt (Jason Sudeikis), clownish suburbanites whose on-the-job tribulations pale by comparison.
 
Dale faces daily harassment at the finely manicured hands of his sex-crazy boss (Jennifer Aniston). Kurt, a womanizing accountant, can barely conceal his contempt for Bobby (Colin Farrell), a paunchy, egomaniacal coke fiend who inherits his dad’s waste-management company.
 
Why Nick, who seems far too sensible to concoct a half-baked murder-for-hire scheme, would hang out with these dimwits is anyone’s guess. Dale is a shrill, wild-eyed Tasmanian devil – wherever he goes, calamity follows. Kurt, on the other hand, is so profoundly clueless it’s a wonder he remembers to breathe.
 
That’s no fault of Sudeikis’. Like Bateman, the Saturday Night Live regular seems to have fallen victim to typecasting, playing the same kind of slow-witted sap you may remember from Hall Pass. Day and Sudeikis are talented comedians, but the jokes here are hit and miss, and the pair’s admirable enthusiasm can’t compensate for the duds.
 
Another problem: The bosses, flaunting their indecency early on, are far more interesting than their disgruntled underlings. Spacey, who played an equally ruthless abuser in Swimming with Sharks (1994), is given some room to develop his character, so that we begin to understand the fury behind his tirades.
 
But what of Bobby? Or Julia, Aniston’s horned-up dentist? Neither is given enough screen time – Bobby, with his obscene comb-over and vacant stare, seems brimming with unexplored potential – and Bosses is a lesser movie for it.
 
The premise is strong enough to sustain a smart, subversive comedy – think Nine to Five, or even Mike Judge's more daring Office Space – and Bateman, who wins our sympathy despite the unfortunate company he keeps, would be just the man to carry it. If only Bosses gave him more to work with, and aspired to a less elementary level of wit.