Imagine the plot of Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train getting rerouted into the realm of screwball revenge comedy, and you'll start to get a picture of the tone director Seth Gordon and screenwriters Michael Markowitz, John Francis Daley, and Jonathan Goldstein strike in Horrible Bosses. A kinetic, unpredictable comedy that never slows down once the plot gets rolling, Gordon's rowdy follow-up to Four Christmases shows a director with a knack for memorably outlandish characters and a talent for casting familiar faces in an absurd new light.
Nick (Jason Bateman), Dale (Charlie Day), and Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) hate their jobs. Not for the long hours or deplorable work conditions, but because each of their bosses seems to delight in making their lives completely unbearable. For Nick, earning a paycheck means enduring the abuse of sadistic corporate psycho Dave Harkin (Kevin Spacey), who would rather give himself a hearty raise than promote his best employee. And while recently engaged dental assistant Dale fends off the hyper-sexual advances of his boss, Dr. Harris (Jennifer Aniston), a nymphomaniac dentist with a serious kinky streak, womanizing account manager Kurt suffers the profound douchebaggery of his coked-up new boss, Bobby (Colin Farrell), a paranoid amateur martial artist ("I'm a green belt!") who took over the company following the recent death of his father (Donald Sutherland in an all-too-brief cameo). Then, one night, following a drunken conversation at a local bar, the trio agrees that their lives would be better if their bosses were dead, and they drive to a shady bar in search of a willing hitman. Unfortunately, all they can afford on their meager budget is a "murder consultant" in the form of the colorfully named "MF" Jones (Jamie Foxx), who recommends they each murder one another's bosses and arrange the killings to look like accidents. But when a slip-up during an intel outing leads to an unexpected complication, Nick, Dale, and Kurt realize that they lack the fortitude for killing just as the police target them as murder suspects and prepare to throw the book at them.
From the opening scene detailing the humiliation and abuse that our three protagonists must endure on a daily basis, Horrible Bosses hums with comic energy. Though it may seem like an incredible feat to maintain such momentum for 100 minutes, Gordon and company make a commendable effort by focusing on both the reprehensible actions of the titular villains and the incredulous reactions of the downtrodden working stiffs as they're pushed to the edge of reason. And as if juggling what essentially amounts to three running gags weren't enough, we also get a surprising play on the old "leaping cat" cliché and a hilarious wild card in the form of the unpredictable Dale. Day, playing essentially the same character he does on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (minus the glue huffing), gets ample support from co-stars Bateman and Sudeikis as the straight man and compulsive womanizer, respectively.
Having previously portrayed one of the most abusive bosses in film history in Swimming with Sharks, Spacey still throws off sparks even when he seems to be doing little more than channeling Buddy Ackerman. This time, though, it's Farrell who gets the best performance appraisal. Nearly unrecognizable in a bad comb-over and snug polyester pants, the handsome star fits into his despicable role so well that you'll wish he had more than two scenes. A hot mess in a lab coat, Aniston may get more screen time than her less-sightly co-star, but it's Day's reactions to her character's psychotic come-ons that help give their scenes together an effective comic rhythm.
At least for the time being, it doesn't appear that Gordon is poised to overthrow Judd Apatow as the Hollywood comedy juggernaut du jour. Even so, Horrible Bosses succeeds because it takes a situation everyone can relate to and milks it for maximum comic potential so we can forget our own workplace woes for just a brief moment, and return to the office laughing when the alarm clock rings the following morning.