There's a scene in Horrible Bosses in which Jennifer Aniston, playing a dentist who habitually sexually harasses her weakling male hygienist (Charlie Day), repeatedly says the word "pussy." Her character is trying to intimidate his, while the filmmakers attempt to shock the audience with the spectacle of this lady rom-com specialist dropping slang for vagina. But it's not shocking to hear an adult woman say "pussy" in an R-rated movie. What's shocking is that this intimidation gambit works: Day's Dale is so afraid of Aniston's Julia, as both a professional superior and a sexual threat, that hearing her refer to her own intimate anatomy sends him into physical convulsions of revulsion.
Horrible Bosses, directed by Seth Gordon, is an ensemble comedy about how our tough economic times have destroyed white-collar, white-male masculinity. Dale, painted as the helpless victim of a sexually hostile supervisor, is part of a troika of high school friends — also including chemical company accountant Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) and unspecified corporate drone Nick (Jason Bateman) — who, at fortyish, are each facing intractable career obstacles. Kurt loves his job and his immediate boss –who promptly dies, leaving the company to his cokehead son. Nick works for an asshole taskmaster (Kevin Spacey) who keeps dangling a promotion and then yanking it away when Nick fails to meet impossible standards. The three put-upon employees regularly meet for drinks to commiserate, and one night they have too many and decide that since the economy is so bad and they're too afraid to actually quit and be left with nothing, the only way up the career ladder is to eliminate their bosses.
As Gordon sleepwalks through the montages and setpieces that will get our boys from drunken violent fantasy to clean-handed happy ending, the "joke" becomes that these guys aren't too upstanding to kill but merely too chickenshit and incompetent. That, plus the fact that there's no indication that offing their current bosses will actually make these guys' lives any better, means that Horrible Bosses is missing the energy that would come from legitimate rage.
The film's three screenwriters include TV actors, writers and producers, and the team's credits speak volumes about Horrible Bosses' tone and tenor. With its lazily sketched characters recalling the back half of an unremarkable episode of SNL, this is middling TV material, almost comforting in its bland predictability.
But there's no such get-out-of-jail-free card for Horrible Bosses' all-encompassing fear of sex — hetero and homo, consensual and otherwise. The only person who actually pursues it for pleasure is Kurt, and he's presented as a letch who's always taught a lesson (a sample line of dialogue: "Speaking of entrapment, I'm gonna go see that girl about her vagina" — which is the first half of an extremely vague, two-part reference to Good Will Hunting that's commendable only for taking almost the entire film to resolve). In the film's first lines, Nick cites his celibacy as a testament to professional commitment. Dale's plotline suggests that we live in a society that's so twisted that innocent men are convicted as sex offenders, while actual "rapists" (a term frequently thrown around here, in reference to both women and men) are untouchable.
In fact, the specter of would-be powerful white dudes getting raped emerges in Horrible Bosses so often that it transcends subtext to become the film's primary subject. On the film's continuum of emasculation, professional subordination is the midpoint, and sexual violation looms ahead as the dreaded final destination. What passes for comedy here doesn't have a chance against a thesis so scary and sad.