Horrible Bosses: The Perils of Improv

Horrible Bosses OnesheetHorrible Bosses has a lot going for it: a catchy hook, a talented cast, and a slew of one-liners that would have Don Rickles taking notes. And yet, there’s something missing.

The central idea is a variation of Strangers on a Train, which the screenwriters pay homage to at one point in the dialogue. I’m not giving away anything you can’t see on the trailer when I say it’s about three well-meaning, hard-working guys who plot to murder their horrible bosses.

And they’re horrible bosses indeed, with Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston, and an all-but-unrecognizable Colin Farrell committing every kind of enormity a boss can commit. In fact, their performances are the highlight of the movie. I mean, we want—we need!—our heroes to succeed at murdering these bosses.

The three friends are played by Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, and Charlie Day with the right mixture of likeability and zaniness. And in smaller roles, Jamie Foxx, Donald Sutherland, and Bob Newhart are all great.

The central idea of the movie speaks to a feeling that has probably floated through lots of besieged workers’ minds at one time or another. And as quickly as their scheme takes shape, it begins to unravel, which is just what you want in a comedy.

And the writing is often very clever. Kevin Spacey gets many of the best lines in a role he has played so often he should take out a patent on it. But Jennifer Aniston is very funny, too. And Colin Farrell’s role is an extended visual joke, complete with the mother of all comb-overs. At the showing I attended, they played a preview of Fright Night, in which Farrell plays a vampire. The contrast is so sharp, you have to slap yourself to realize both characters are played by the same actor.

In short, I laughed. Not big belly laughs, but laughs. And The Sleeper stayed awake throughout, despite having spent several hours cleaning stalls and training her new horse.

But I can’t help thinking—now indulge me for a moment—that the movie could have been better. The credits include a few outtakes, and in them, it’s clear the actors are improvising their lines. You see this in the outtakes for many recent comedies, including The Hangover II, Date Night, Dinner for Schmucks, and others. And I can’t help thinking that this sort of thing is only occasionally successful. A talented actor can come up with a funny line now and then, but mostly those lines are going to sound like the funny stuff our friends say when we’ve been drinking (to paraphrase poet Donald Hall); we have to get drunk again to think they’re funny. I notice, for instance, in the outtakes for Date Night, none of the improv is done by Tina Fey, a truly funny writer/actor. I’d like to think she respects the hard work of writing too much to toss off lines from the top of her head (though I’d pay top-dollar for a condo in the top of that head). [Note: OK, I checked—I’m wrong. She does some very funny improv during the credits.]

It’s almost as if movie producers sometimes buy a comedy script that has an inherently funny idea but may not be executed all that well. They must think that a cast of talented improv actors will punch up the script on the fly, during shooting. Which results in lines that are funny sort-of, but never funny ha-ha.

Or maybe the problem is we’ve seen too many of these bad boy comedies. The characters, plots, and world-views run together. If I’m not mistaken, our country’s subtitle is “Men Behaving Badly.”

One of the things that makes Bridesmaids so appealing was the fact that it’s about women. In bad boy comedies, the women are never more than prostitutes or disapproving voices on the other end of a phone. Bridesmaids is about more than its one-liners and shocking visuals; it’s about the nature of women’s friendships and about how hard it is to find love and fulfillment. In other words, it’s got interesting ideas and characters who change and grow over the course of the movie.  We care about the Kristen Wiig character, about the survival of her friendship, and about her chances for happiness. In Horrible Bosses, each actor shows up with a clip full of one-liners but not much else.

Still, I enjoyed it. I mean, you won’t find me pounding the ticket counter, demanding my money back.

I just want more.

P.S. Are we going to have these generic titles for comedies from now on? The Hangover, Bridesmaids, Horrible Bosses. Whatever happened to evocative titles like Throw Momma from the Train, A Fish Called Wanda, and Young Frankenstein?