It’s not often that we reasonably expect a sequel to win over new converts, especially those who hated the original, and in that regard, Horrible Bosses 2 does not disappoint. By the same token, anybody who loved Horrible Bosses will probably find stuff to like here too. On the other hand, there’s no way to tell how you will react if (like this reviewer) you had mostly forgotten about the original.
Director Seth Gordon and lead actors Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day enjoyed a surprise critical and commercial hit back in the summer of 2011. Their hapless Strangers On A Train-style plot to murder each other’s loathsome employers won over cinemagoers, particularly with a comedic chemistry that made them something like the Three Stooges for the modern R-rated comedy audience.
In an age where The Hangover eventually turned into a (terrible) trilogy, a sequel was always going to be on the cards, this time without Gordon in the director’s chair. Some time after their first outing, Nick, (Bateman) Kurt, (Sudeikis) and Dale (Day) are following their dreams of being their own bosses and hope that their fledgling shower gadget business will attract investment from catalogue mogul Burt Hanson (Christoph Waltz) and his brat son Rex. (Chris Pine)
Instead, the Hansons force the business into imminent foreclosure with the aim of buying it for cents on the dollar at auction. Nick, Kurt and Dale then decide that kidnapping Rex and holding him for ransom is their only reasonable course, only for Rex to try to partner up on their hare-brained scheme.
The first stumble for the sequel is, to paraphrase Die Hard 2‘s question about sequels, “how does the same shit happen to the same guys twice?” The set-up is accordingly clumsy in that regard, especially as writer-director Sean Anders bends over backwards to include Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston and Jamie Foxx, who’ve all been coaxed back to reprise their characters for a second run-around.
The comedic repetition wears thin fast, mostly because whatever unexpected behaviour was displayed by their characters first time around is calcified by their second appearance. Spacey’s Dave Harken is a white-collar criminal with a homicidal disdain for our heroes- that’s just who he is. Aniston’s nymphomaniac Julia Harris boasts new information about sex addiction and coprophilia- that’s just who she is. And Jamie Foxx is still Motherfucker Jones, a character whose name alone is still expected to do all of the work. That’s just who they are and if you ever found it funny, it’s greatly diminished this time around.
But despite another criminal enterprise from these apparently average characters, the central chemistry is happily immune to the effect of diminishing returns. Nick, Kurt and Dale aren’t everymen, they’re straight-up irresponsible imbeciles, and the film isn’t afraid of losing the audience by calling them on it. Although the delivery often favours shouting and cross-talk over good gags and one-liners, there’s still fun to be had watching them bicker. There’s even one moment where they all start slapping one another that’s pure Larry, Curly and Moe.
Any other stand-out scenes that arise come right out of that dynamic, from their clueless reconnaissance work to a climactic car chase with some laugh-out-loud moments, (“Do I have time to get out and take a pee?” was a surprising highlight.) With that in mind, Chris Pine’s integration with that dynamic shouldn’t work quite as well as it does- his performance makes the line between captors and captive alarmingly blurry.
The charismatic mania that Pine lets loose here was nowhere to be seen in his role as Jack Ryan in this year’s Kenneth Branagh reboot, Shadow Recruit, and it’s seldom seen in his efforts as Captain Kirk either. Nevertheless, between this and his role in Joe Carnahan’s Stretch, Pine is clearly pitching for more comedic roles and it’s oddly refreshing to see a movie star who doesn’t want to be taken so seriously.
On the flip side of this, usually excellent actors like Christoph Waltz and Jonathan Banks (playing a cop who follows the destruction in the wake of the convoluted plot) show nothing but bemusement, mirroring the reactions of the cinema patrons in the screening we saw. Both are brought in as straight men to the sillier characters’ antics, but neither seems wholly invested in their brief roles. And why would they be? We haven’t seen their thin characters before, but their shtick has the consistency of wet cement, just as with Spacey, Aniston et al.
If Warner Bros and New Line have stretched it this far, then only a major box office bomb will really prevent a third instalment in the Horrible Bosses saga from arriving on screen in the next few years and while you can expect it to have the same problems setting up the same shit for a third time, there are moments here that look depressingly like half-arsed foundations for where the characters will go next time around, particularly Foxx’s character.
It’s just a cynical studio exercise all around, adhering strictly to formula, so it seems churlish to lay the blame with the new writer and director. Anders landed in 2008 with Sex Drive, an equally convoluted but essentially sweet and under-appreciated teen comedy that boasted likeable turns from its young leads and a magnificent against-type role for James Marsden.
Since then, his directorial efforts have gone along the lines of She’s Out Of My League and That’s My Boy, an Adam Sandler comedy that covered such ticklish topics as incest and statutory rape. Horrible Bosses 2 doesn’t entirely right the course of that treacherous descent, but Anders is hamstrung by the staggering pointlessness of it all, lacking any reason to continue the story aside from box office returns. As noisy and obnoxious as it is, the pause as you wait for such reason to manifest itself becomes deafening.
On the other hand, in the film’s very best moments, Pine keeps things fresh while Messrs Bateman, Sudeikis and Day re-capture the Stooges-like chemistry that made the first film such a surprise hit and that’s about the only thing that makes the sequel watchable. But that’s what the first film is for, and it’ll take a lot more to convince us that Horrible Bosses 3 would be any different.
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