If Seth Gordon’s Horrible Bosses (2011) was a black comedy akin to such titles as Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), Harold and Maude (1971), and Death to Smoochy (2002), Sean Anders’ Horrible Bosses 2 (2014) is more of a screwball comedy. Both films follow Nick Hendricks (Jason Bateman), Dale Arbus (Charlie Day), and Kurt Buckman (Jason Sudeikis), three friends who attempt to commit crimes against people who exploit them. The reason why one film can be classified as “dark” and the other as “screwball” can be primarily attributed to the nature of the attempted crimes. In the first film, they set out to kill their bosses. In this sequel, they seek to kidnap them. In a perfectly executed kidnapping, nobody actually gets hurt (physically, that is). Accordingly, this time around Nick, Dale, and Kurt don’t actually want to hurt anybody; they just want revenge against a billionaire who plots to bankrupt their start-up company. Because of this, the audience can view them as actual heroes and not anti-heroes.
Predictably, the three of them are just as inept as they were in the first film. But where Horrible Bosses 2 outshines the original is in its plotting. Sean Anders and John Morris demonstrate ferocious screenwriting skills in how they are able to create Perfectly Laid Plans and then thwart them in the most outrageous and unexpected ways imaginable. One of the most effective was when Nick, Dale, and Kurt accidentally gas themselves while trying to knock out and abduct Rex Hanson (Chris Pine). But the pièce de résistance is the final set-piece where they try and orchestrate the drop-off of Rex’s ransom. Lasting for about the last fourth of the film, it is a perfect demonstration of how Murphy’s Law can and should be applied to crime capers. The twists, turns, and sudden reversals of fate could almost rival even the most classical of Hollywood screwball comedies.
But the similarities between Horrible Bosses 2 and screwball comedies are deeper than just a shared use of lightning-fast repartee and complex plotting. There is an underlying class tension between Nick, Dale, and Kurt and the businessmen who are trying to cheat them. Since the film revolves around a kidnapping, there is an emphasis on secrets and hidden identities (which is exploited to wonderful effect during the scenes where they try and communicate with each other via walkie-talkie and find themselves incapable of not calling each other by their real names). There is even a reversal of traditional gender roles with Dale and Nick being respectively pursued by and strung along by Jennifer Aniston’s Dr. Julia Harris.
The bottom line is that Horrible Bosses 2 is funny. Damn funny, in fact. The film is further bolstered by formidable comedic performances. Once again Charlie Day almost steals the whole show. But the most crucial performance was Jason Bateman’s Nick as the ubiquitous straight man. Without him and his silent exasperation, the other hyper-active performances may have quickly become overwhelming.
But there is one problem that I would like to briefly address. The film is bursting with ethnic and sexist stereotypes. There are three black characters and only one of them is not mistaken by the protagonists as some kind of criminal. Women make out even worse. Dale’s wife is the only female character who isn’t either a buxom sex-pot or a racial punchline. Obviously these characters exist so that the white male characters can humiliate and degrade themselves via their interactions. But just because Rex is revealed to be a monster through his treatment of his Asian housemaid, it doesn’t change the fact that the most prominent Asian role in the film is that of a servant who can barely speak English.