Why does every single Jason Bateman character ever insist on associating with morons? Bateman’s always been the smartest, most hapless schmuck in the room; ever since his days on Arrested Development, viewers have gravitated towards him out of sympathy, wanting to support his innate, down-to-earth likeability. But there’s a point at which an actor’s persona threatens to tip over the edge into grotesque schtick, and with Horrible Bosses 2, Bateman hovers dangerously close to unflattering self-parody. Reprising his role from 2011’s Horrible Bosses, the Everyman-named Nick Hendricks, Bateman finds himself stymied again and again by the rank ineptitude of the people with which he chooses to ally himself. He’s rational, he’s normal, and he’s surrounded by assholes.
Of course, Horrible Bosses 2 is a movie, and we’re supposed to suspend our disbelief when we watch it, but for an hour and 40 minutes, the film stretches the limits of human patience with mind-boggling acts of stupidity. It makes the tacit assumption that we’ll accept every set-up it foists on its characters; the problem is that the set-ups and the characters are both so dumb they defy even the most basic logic. It’s a wonder that they’re able to put on their pants when they wake up in the morning. How can three men combine into such a thrumming dynamo of idiocy? These dummies can’t even use walkie talkies without screwing up. Cinema has a rich rogue’s gallery of oafs, simpletons, dimwits and ninnies, but Nick (Bateman), Dale Arbus (Charlie Day), and Kurt Buckman (Jason Sudeikis) are in an imbecile’s league of their own. This, in the season Dumb and Dumber To, mind you.
Their new adventure commences when they design a doohickey that streamlines bathtime; it’s the kind of all-in-one bric a brac found on The Home Shopping Network, and they think it’s going to get them rich. And they’re right! When they cross paths with the exorbitantly wealthy Burt Hanson (Christoph Waltz, wasted), they think they’ve found an investor with all the juice needed to make their American dream come true. Then Burt reminds them that business is often predicated on big guys screwing over little guys, leaving Nick, Kurt and Dale (their names amalgam into a racial slur when spoken fast in that order, which is somehow supposed to be hilarious) in dire financial straits.
How else do they get even than by breaking the law? Instead of plotting murder most foul, they kidnap Rex (Chris Pine), Burt’s spoiled son, who’s burdened by the kind of ennui known only by the 1%. Smart. If you think that the gang spends the whole film flubbing their plot to shanghai Rex, think again; Rex wants to aid in the hostage situation as a way of testing Daddy’s love for him. His complicity adds a neat wrinkle to the movie that ultimately goes somewhere of mild interest, and Pine is the all-in sort, so he embraces every dimension of the role with his usual gusto. The problem, though, is that Rex’s presence catalyzes the obsolescence of the film’s stars. Horrible Bosses 2 rides on one recurring gag—the gang’s joint incompetence—and having Rex in the fold both adds to and detracts from the joke. Nick, Kurt and Dale can’t do anything right. Now they have a sidekick to remind us at every wrong turn they take.
That’s appropriate considering the film’s habit of pointing out its punchlines, the bulk of which don’t land. It’s one thing to be unfunny. It’s another to insist that you are by parsing your own wisecracks. Horrible Bosses 2 is instructional in this regard, so for the humor impaired it’ll be a godsend. Why bother paying attention to the comic beats when the movie tells you when to laugh? Anders’ writing is so soft that you might not even crack a smile in spite of his best efforts to highlight wit; most of the really killer moments involve the supporting cast, not just Pine but Jamie Foxx and Kevin Spacey, back for more after the last picture, playing the same parts like pros. You will get tired of seeing Day and Sudeikis do what Day and Sudeikis do in mere minutes. You may be less bored with the people Anders hired to fill in the margins. (Even Jonathan Banks is more amusing as a cranky detective than the leads are as themselves.)
All of this puffed up whinging demands much of a middlebrow studio comedy that wants to dress itself up to look edgy. But Horrible Bosses 2 has no teeth; the central idea driving it forward is shockingly mundane (oh, so the haves occasionally oppress the have-nots, you say?) and has been done before, not to mention better. Meanwhile, Bateman’s eyes convey so much hangdog suffering that it’s a wonder he agreed to star in the film to begin with. Maybe he isn’t that smart after all.
Director: Sean Anders
Writer Sean Anders, John Morris
Starring: Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, Charlie Day, Chris Pine, Christoph Waltz, Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Aniston, Kevin Spacey, Jonathan Banks
Release Date: Nov. 26th, 2014
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film for the web since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant and Movie Mezzanine. You can follow him on Twitter. Currently, he has given up on shaving.