There is a little game I often play with myself, in which I try to determine which classic director of film comedy would have been able to redeem or even make a masterpiece out of whatever unexceptional or bad or completely fucking unwatchable new "comic" film I've just stumbled out of.* Sometimes it's hard and requires a great deal of thought and reflection, and sometimes it's pointlessly easy, as in the case of Horrible Bosses, which isn't even that bad - it starts out being pretty gosh-darn funny, in fact, and proceeds to leak air at a stunning clip on its way to a completely useless climax - but I could never stop myself from thinking how absolutely great it would be if it had been made by Billy Wilder. It's a story about three schlubby Everyman protagonists driven to consider murdering their respective bosses: in the hands of a proper comic misanthrope of the Wilder vein, somebody who can sympathise with his characters while refusing to cut them even a little bit of slack , this might have been an exquisitely nasty and hilarious black comedy, but that's not at all where director Seth Gordon and the team of three sceenwriters take the material: instead, it's basically just The Hangover with a healthy sense of class resentment in place of lifestyle porn and economic desperation subbing for hopped-up sexuality - these are both positive developments, if you asked me - that makes the mistake of letting its heroes off the hook much too readily, while having absolutely no idea what to do with a really swell concept once it gets past the exposition stage.

Briefly: Nick (Jason Bateman), Kurt (Jason Sudeikis), and Dale (Charlie Day) are three old friends who each have a miserable boss that ruins their life: respectively, Dave Harken (Kevin Spacey), a snarling corporate sociopath, Bobby Pellitt (Colin Farrell), the inept, drug-addled heir to a chemical company, and Dr. Julia Harris (Jennifer Aniston), a nymphomaniac dentist. The three men are commiserating one night when the idea comes up to kill their bosses, and the joke manages to stick around enough that in no time at all they're actively pursuing the idea, with the aid of a "murder consultant" named Dean Jones (Jamie Foxx), who prefers to be addressed as "Motherfucker" on account of it not being in any way, shape or form attached to Disney pictures in the 1960s.

The film does two things, primarily; one of them pretty well, and one of them absolutely terribly. The thing it does well is to present the interplay of Bateman, Sudeikis, and Day to best effect - and it's not an accident that I say "Bateman, Sudeikis, and Day", instead of "Nick, Kurt, and Dale", because the two things aren't the same. In fact, Horrible Bosses does a fairly bad job of indicating what about these three lads has kept them together since high school: other than one brief moment playing a video game, there's never any indication that they spend time together socially, that they have a shared pool of in-jokes and experiences and interests. Hell, besides the plot-advancing detail that Dale has a fiancée (Lindsay Sloane), it doesn't seem like any of the men has any real kind of existence outside of their terrible, terrible jobs. And with that, I have begun to point to the thing the film does terribly, but I don't want to get there quite yet. Because the three performers are all pretty good: I find, personally, that a little Sudeikis goes a long way, and Bateman's sarcastic straight man routine is definitely wearing thin half a decade after his career-saving role in Arrested Development went off the air. But Day, playing a hyperactive terrified little man accurately described by another character as a "hamster" is quite joyful (and satisfactorily different from his character on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia), and his erratic energy offsets the other two, far more laconic leads, enough that the three of them together end up with a kind of comic wholeness that any one of the performances itself cannot provide. The best scenes in the movie, and by a pretty considerable margin, are the ones where we just see these three hanging out and bitching and quipping.

Which is why a shame that the damn plot has to happen, because the filmmakers don't seem to have much of an idea what to do with it, or how. Setting aside a third act that arrives in complete violation not just of our own reality (this is, ultimately, a farce, and such a reality violation is pretty much okay anyway), but even the rules the film was apparently setting up, Horrible Bosses lumbers along unsteadily, never quite committing enough to the seamy details of its narrative - and here is where I'd like to see a Wilder, or a Joel and Ethan Coen, take a whack at the same scenario - to let the story stand up on its own two feet. It's broken from head to toe, presenting a world that doesn't work and a story that doesn't flow within that world. Sure, there's funny that happens, but it's all isolated, solely a matter of dialogue and occasionally physical actions that are in and off themselves so absurd you can't help but chortle, and never because it grows brilliantly and organically from what's come before.

It's probably also worth pointing out how damn tawdry so much of it is: unlike The Hangover, that other "three mismatched men get involved in anti-social hijinks" film that Horrible Bosses so clearly has in mind, the R-rating here is mostly for filthy conceptual audacity and not actual visual excesses, but it shares that film's putrid appreciation of women (Dr. Harris being a misogynistic nightmare that would have worked better had there been anything to leaven her presence; in other gender-related news I guess the film deserves some points for mentioning that men can be sexually harassed, too, but this idea is presented with such a dismissive, snarky tone that it doesn't really take. Still, baby steps), and flirtation with racism (pointing out, as the film does multiple times, that the characters are kind of racist isn't the same as failing to endorse their racism). White fratboydom rules the day, and it's one thing that the characters aren't called on the carpet for their various failings as human beings - I'm all for that kind of cynicism, when it's done well - but quite another that the film doesn't seem to regard these things as failings in the first place.

Still, it manages to be a playful enough summer comedy, as long as it's just hanging out with the guys and not watching them do anything active; and the cast is uniformly game, with Day and Farrell standing out, and nobody, not even Spacey, bringing the movie down around them (meanwhile, Donald Sutherland, Ioan Gruffudd, and Bob Newhart (!) do lovely things with cameo roles), so all in all it's not too bad as a timewaster. It's a shame that the film goes out of its way to name-drop Strangers on a Train and Throw Momma from a Train, the first a stone-cold masterpiece and the second a much more committed black comedy, anyway, than Horrible Bosses is; and a shame that Gordon, still best-regarded for his excellent documentary The King of Kong, doesn't push a bit more savagely against the film's soft, round edges. But there's good chemistry, decent dialogue, and it's not as completely neutered as, say, Bad Teacher, at least.