I’m pretty pleased about the advent of the “R” rated, popular comedy. Yes, it opens the door to bottomless pools of crass, gross out/sex jokes. But that’s not the only benefit. It also allows for comedy to return to themes chosen with adults in mind, which can make for a reasonably entertaining film even when the film isn’t that funny. Maybe it really was just me, but it feels like there were a couple of lost decades during which I almost never seemed to watch mainstream comedies, even as disposable entertainment. Did Tim Allen ever appear in a remotely watchable movie? Was Chris Rock ever in anything that could beat rewatching Funny Farm? Will Ferrell had a couple of decent ones, but I think we’re far better off when the starting point of a film is being trapped in a job that you hate with scumbag for a boss, than something about one of Santa’s elves going to New York. The latter has to really be hit out of the park, while the former is already clicking with most of us before we set foot in the theater.
Horrible Bosses is remarkably honest about the fact that our society rewards people for being greedy, selfish, dishonest pieces of shit, as long as they know how to color within the lines. Not only can you get to the top by lying and screwing people over. Once you get to the top, you can get away with pretty much whatever you want. If, for example, your boss decides to slander you to other people in the field, as Spacey threatens to do in the film (all of the characters in this film are just the actors, but the actors are good), there’s nothing you can do about it. So much so that we have a cliche for it: You’ll never work in this town again! Another cliche is for senior managers to promote less competent people to the spots bellow them so that they look good by comparison. Nobody ever gets fired for that, because then the people above them would have to admit they made a mistake in giving the position to the senior manager. If you don’t like it, move to Russia.
Decent people get to the top as well, and you can argue that many or most bosses–business owners, successful politicians, corporate executives–are basically decent people. I’m not going to sit here and try to put an asshole percentage on people who make more than $250,000 or something. But what is undeniable, is that our society rewards a disproportionately large percentage of dishonest people who are driven by greed. Maybe that’s even appropriate, as those are the people who “want it the most.” But it still blows. And these tendencies are always becoming more prevalent and entrenched. I think we’ve arrived to the point where we have overtly declared that being a shyster is pretty much permissible.
There was a little blip on the newscycle here in California because the new president of San Diego State “University” was offered, and accepted, a $400,000 salary on the same day that a 12% tuition hike was announced. It’s $100,000 more than his predecessor and it comes with free housing and a $1,000 a month car allowance. It also comes as SDSU lays off lower level employees and cuts services to students. This is in the world of public education, where you’d think that executives would at least have to pretend to care about people other than themselves. Students and taxpayers, for example. One might think that, even if you are going to accept a garish hike in compensation that has a one to one relationship with some of your employees losing their jobs, maybe you shouldn’t do it so openly and shamelessly. But it seems that any such sentiments belong to the past. The virtually anonymous trustees scratched their buddy’s back at the expense of–well, pretty much everybody else in the state, and even the Governor of California couldn’t do anything about it, other than declaring that it stunk. So what are the chances of your boss ever being held accountable for such abuses? We all know that they never will be.
In the movie, Kevin Spacey uses a promotional opportunity to “motivate” his workers then, after several months of extracting extra work from them, declares that he will merge the position, and the salary that comes with it, with his own. Then he sets about turning the office for the position into an expansion of his own office. I don’t think even Spacey gets a $1,000 a month car allowance, but he’s pretty open about what his employees can do if they don’t like it: fuck off and try to find another job, without him as a reference. It’s almost the same story. I’m going to take from you. I know that it hurts you and I don’t care. It’s not criminal, in fact, my greed is rewarded as a virtue. There is nothing you can do about it.
Jason Bateman is considering quitting, when he and his pals meet their old high school classmate, a Yale man who can’t get a job waiting tables and who is trying to make ends meet by dishing out hand jobs in the bathroom of Applebees. Though powerfully erotic, the scene lays out the reality faced by many workers. I’m too embarrassed to say what I make at my shitty job for high school drop outs, where I’ve had co-workers who graduated from Yale, Harvard, Berkeley, Johns Hopkins and dozens from UCLA, USC, UCSB and UCSD. Every time the company announces a new policy designed to screw us, sometimes openly violating labor laws, there’s always the subtext: real unemployment in California is almost 20%, so if you don’t like it, feel free to try your luck on the job market. Hopefully nothing happens during the lapse in your health insurance.
With a jobless economic “recovery” looking more like a new reality, we’d better get used to it. Outsourcing, free trade and illegal immigration mean that capital can always find labor willing to put up with just about anything. Of course, I don’t think Horrible Bosses was written with the words ‘capital’ and ‘labor’ in mind, but I do think it is about the exhausting hopelessness that is faced by an increasing percentage of the decreasing percentage of those who can even find jobs. And our impotence in the face of the escalating misconduct of Horrible Bosses–our actual bosses, or the parade of politicians, bankers and CEOs who take a tiny bit from each of us. Every year, it seems that they ask “I wonder if I can get away with this?” The answer is always “yes,” and then it becomes the norm. Executive salaries multiply. The ratio of wages to profits is the lowest in history, even though Democrats are in power. That’s not the message of the movie, but it is the reality in which the movie is set. In the film, Colin Farrell openly declares that the purpose of the business he inherits is to serve as his personal ATM to fund his coke and whore habits. In real life, I know of a case where the top executives of a public company voted to throw themselves an exclusive, $1 million Christmas party. That’s not a figure of speech, it actually cost $1 million of shareholder money. It’s a reality many adults face. That is the source of the humor, which is maybe 40% hit and 60% miss, and often a bit tired, but we can instantly relate to it. Sticking somebody’s toothbrush up your asshole? Yawn. Sticking a Horrible Boss’s toothbrush up your asshole? I won’t remember it a week from now, but it did make me smile.
So the obvious fantasy is to just kill the fuckers. One thing the film pulls off well, is being blunt about the fact that these bosses deserve death, without seeming overly bitter or consciously edgy. Jason Sudeikus argues simply that his boss explicitly decided to expose thousands of people to carcinogens in order to save money to buy more cocaine for himself. If someone like that doesn’t deserve a bullet, then who does? The problem is that, while there thousands of people out there who really do deserve to be killed, it doesn’t mitigate the moral stain of murder. There was a good Atlantic article about The Rise of The New Global Elite and it quotes this guy, for example:
I heard a similar sentiment from the Taiwanese-born, 30-something CFO of a U.S. innernet company. A gentle, unpretentious man who went from public school to Harvard, he’s nonetheless not terribly sympathetic to the complaints of the American middle class. “We demand a higher paycheck than the rest of the world,” he told me. “So if you’re going to demand 10 times the paycheck, you need to deliver 10 times the value. It sounds harsh, but maybe people in the middle class need to decide to take a pay cut.”
In his mind, the normalization of greed bordering on theft has established a new standard of virtue with himself near the top, because he takes a lot thanks to “the market,” which consists of his peers voting on how much to pay each other under the watch of two “business friendly” political parties that they fund. Maybe he’s unpretentious. Maybe he’s even kind to the people in his life, who he believes deserve more while everyone else gets less. I really hope somebody murders him. I’m not joking. If I find out that someone does murder him, I will find the murderer immoral and wrong, but I will be happy. I might send the killer a box of kit kats in prison, but he’d deserve to be in prison. It’s this moral thicket that the film navigates successfully, allowing us to live out exactly such a scenario. And with this background, we can more easily enjoy something in the foreground like the first big movie role for Charlie Day. I figured he’d be the one from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” to make the leap to the big screen, and he certainly holds his own. Nothing spectacular, but he has a few signature moments. “You’re a rape-er!”
Horrible Bosses is pretty predictable, so I don’t mind telling you that our protagonists find themselves unwilling to pull the trigger. That is what differentiates them from their Horrible Bosses, which I suppose is a pretty easy calculation for the filmmakers to make. But the less obvious move is that, when the bosses meet with serious misfortune, there is never the slightest suggestion that we should feel any sympathy for them. No babble about how they are recycling abuse that had been dealt to them in the past. They are villains who get what’s coming to them, unlike their real life counterparts. For thinking adults, that’s a more satisfying escapist fantasy than talking gorillas, special powers granted by electrocution or magical remote controls. And I think that’s the other side of the “R” comedy. While the humor itself is broad, sometimes in a good way, the subject matter seems to be moving towards real grown up stuff. Like sticking your boss’s toothbrush up your asshole.