Horrible Bosses 2 review

The rule of diminishing returns most definitely took a hold of Horrible Bosses 2, but this lukewarm retread of the first did manage to generate just enough sparks to hold my attention.

Sean Anders and John Morris’ script reintroduces the first film’s three protagonists – Nick (Jason Bateman), Kurt (Jason Sudekis) and Dale (Charlie Day) – as they attempt to launch a product on breakfast television. Their invention, the Shower Buddy, gets the attention of a Bert (Christoph Waltz), the owner of a catalogue business, and his son Rex (Chris Pine).

But Nick, Kurt and Dale promptly turn down Rex’s one-time offer to buy their business, and instead choose to manufacture their product themselves, in America. This decision, its implications and Bert and Rex’s reactions bring us to the film’s most interesting material. The first movie was heavily informed by the recent recession, even finding time to mention the Lehman Brothers, and the sequel continues on a similar path, even if Anders and Morris have tended to use their economic context more as a simplistic backdrop than anything they might actually explore.

Bert and Rex are pretty loathsome characters, despite both actors’ remarkable charisma, and they have moral compasses that spin wildly out of control. Bert takes things to a Tex Richman level at times, even pointing out to our hapless protagonists that the only way to become wealthy is to start out with wealth. Meanwhile, his son embodies the archetype of a modern American spoiled brat, the kind evoked by Rich Kids of Instagram.

One sequence is particularly difficult to watch, as Rex verbally and physically abuses his maid, Kim (Suzy Nakamura). He puts on a heavily offensive stereotyped ‘Asian voice’ and even throws a shoe at her head. The scene is clearly intended to be funny but also very uncomfortable. There’s a fine line being walked here, and indeed, the film is ambitious enough to try to tread this line again and again, but with very mixed results.

A particular problem arises because Horrible Bosses 2 is largely about dark ideas, with a kidnapping plot, gags about sexual abuse and racism, and a recurring focus on homophobia, but also relies on creating likeable and winning lead characters. The filmmakers have set it up that they need their leads to say and do things that are just terrible enough, but never so terrible that the audience will disengage from them. Unfortunately, they don’t pull it off anything like well enough, and many cringeworthy moments are simply that, and not cringeworthy in that funny way which would have the audience both squirming and laughing.

A large proportion of the jokes rely on suggestions that one of the characters may be gay, or involve the notion of a homosexual act. In the opening segment, for instance, Charlie Day crouches down in such a way that it might look like he’s felating Jason Sudekis. This appears to be a very widespread problem with modern American comedies, and there’s no indication that it’s about to go away. As predictable as it might be, it’s always a shame to see another film that falls back on gay panic humour.

Bateman, Sudekis and Day are often at their funniest when their characters are bickering, and they do very foten come across like old friends hanging out, and getting up to mischief in a pretty natural way. Many of the best jokes come from the trio sitting in their car, arguing. There’s evidence in the end credits’ outtake reel that some of this material was derived from the three actors improvising around a theme. Sadly, many of these moments follow the simple formula of Day going a bit crazy, Sudekis shooting off a smarmy grin and a sexual innuendo, and Bateman reacting with a deadpan look of exasperation.

Three guys sitting in a car isn’t perhaps the most visually thrilling set up either – which is actually something that forms the basis of a joke, in a roundabout way. When the characters are up and moving, however, Anders does make a clear attempt to spice things up. A montage sequence of the gang building up their business is shot with a time-lapse pan, and when they’re planning a bag drop as part of the kidnapping plot we get a pretty well shot and edited riff on an Ocean’s Eleven-style pre-heist explanation. It’s not exactly eye-popping stuff but it is certainly an improvement over the dull, flat way that a many American comedies are visualised.

Horrible Bosses 2 will almost certainly fail to win over any new fans but it is a watchable follow-up with at least one or two ticks in the pro column. It’s out in the US now, and in the UK from Friday November 28th.