Review by Ryan Wilson

Among the superheroes, Transformers and cowboys and aliens that clog the big screen each summer, we get a fair amount of mainstream comedies. That the premises in these films are as deep as a sitcom plot must have something to do with the summer TV hiatus. But unlike the big screen spectacles that give us a reprieve from our own reality, summer comedies often remind us of just how rotten the worst of realities can be. Back in the Great Depression screwball comedies became immensely popular because in those films the aristocracy was often used as a punch line. Seeing the wealthy depicted as buffoons had to be cathartic to a struggling population. Today, when we go to the theater to see Bad Teacher or Horrible Bosses, we’re still seeing traditional authority figures as the punch line, but we’re also seeing the Average Joe’s powerless place in the world. This is also cathartic, but in these new social comedies we leave perhaps feeling smaller than when we sat down.

Horrible Bosses works because of its Average Joe casting. Jason Bateman mastered his straight man act in the brilliant television show Arrested Development, but until now he hasn’t found the right movie role to project his dry comic timing. When he’s pitted against evil company president Kevin Spacey, Bateman gets to play the perfect rope-a-dope victim. He might just continue to repress his anger if he weren’t friends with Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikus, who also suffer under oppressive employers Jennifer Anniston and Colin Farrell. They convince him to swap murders with him, ala Strangers on a Train, or more to their taste, Throw Mama from the Train.

Pardon the pun, but Horrible Bosses easily runs off the rails, as you would expect with a premise like this. But the story is hardly the point. The pleasure comes from watching our three middle class stooges interact with one another. This is a dialogue-laden comedy where the best moments don’t involve movement or execution, but sitting and plotting. Even more than Bateman, the movie truly belongs to Charlie Day, who’s also coming from a very funny television show, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Day’s used to an overly-talky pacing in his TV show, which is why he steals the momentum early in the film and doesn’t really give it back. When he accidentally inhales one of the boss’ cocaine trails, his hyper-active delivery turns even more hyper, which is hilarious to witness. It’s almost like Day is lampooning himself.

Leading up to Horrible Bosses’ release much has been made of Jennifer Anniston’s overly-sexed character and Colin Farrell’s bald and out-of shape antagonist. But these two end up sitting in the shadow of Kevin Spacey’s bile. Spacey is perfect for the part, but he’s really just reprising moments from his delectable role as an egocentric studio executive in 1995’s Swimming with Sharks. When Bateman and company begin plotting his demise Spacey basically stops mattering, almost as if a bitter soul like him can be dissolved away with enough distraction.

Bad Teacher, on the other hand, gives us a figure not so easily forgotten. Cameron Diaz has never carried as much water in a picture as she literally does in the school carwash scene, and while that particular scene is over the top, as is much of Bad Teacher, Diaz somehow pulls us into her classroom.

Bad Teacher doesn’t disappoint simply because it delivers the bad behavior we enjoy seeing, although in many ways it could have been much worse. Diaz’s teacher, for example, doesn’t seduce a student or even really insult her charges. She’s more concerned with smoking pot in the gym and embezzling school funds to pay for a breast enhancement. Calling the movie “Petty Teacher” might have been more accurate. Diaz’s teaching isn’t so much the issue as her relationships with the rest of her colleagues, depicted here as an overly-caring and dysfunctional group of public employees. Lucy Punch is especially annoying as her cloying classroom neighbor Amy Squirrell, who vies for the affections of new faculty member Justin Timberlake, who portrays maybe the most insipid teacher ever put to screen.

As spotty as the jokes can be, the movie succeeds in keeping itself ornery and mean-spirited. It’s quick to make fun of just about everyone and everything in public education, following the template set up in Bad Santa, which took on just as many easy targets at the holiday shopping center.

That both Bad Teacher and Horrible Bosses give us characters rebelling against those revered institutions of school and work isn’t so surprising, but the manner in which these characters plot to take down their coworkers does feel at times extreme, which of course makes for more comedy. Laughing at such horrible scenarios might remind some of how good they have it, while others might shudder when the lights go up and they have to return to the daily grind.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College Quality Public Radio.

© Ryan Wilson, 2011