It’s often said that comedic acting is more difficult than dramatic acting, for various reasons. On one hand, it’s a real shame that comedic actors are never recognized for their works with Oscars or other prestigious awards. On the other hand, so many comedies are so lazy (Adam Sandler’s last five movies, for instance) that they deserve the derision and low reputation they get. All of this makes it all the more delightful when a brilliant, excellent, elevating comedic performance comes along; the kind delivered by Charlie Day in “Horrible Bosses.”
From the beginning, Day has his work cut out for him; he’s a dental assistant to a sexually aggressive Jennifer Aniston, who pledges that she will bed him before his upcoming wedding day, and if she fails, she’ll tell his fiance that she did, anyway. Since this is likely to sound more like fantasy than nightmare to most males 18 to 35 –the main audience for raunch comedies like “Horrible Bosses”–it’s up to Day to sell it as such, especially since we only meet said fiancee once or twice, and she barely makes an impression. But sell it he does (Aniston does some great work too, as a creepy cougar) and that’s just where the comedy starts.
Day’s pals are Jason Sudeikis and Justin Bateman , whose boss is a heartless, angry egomaniac played by Kevin Spacey. Spacey was one of my favorite actors in the ’90s, but ever since he became the artistic director of the Old Vic theater in London — a prestigious and demanding job, to be sure–his film performances have seemed cardboard and called in. It may help that he has only one note to play here; he plays it to the hilt. Sudeikis’ boss is Colin Farrell slumming it as a cokehead, ninja-obsessed blowhard, he spends by far the least amount of time onscreen, but gets the job done anyway.
The trio of good guys almost accidentally launch a plan to kill each other’s bosses, and bring in Jamie Foxx as a clueless “murder consultant.” One of the running jokes of “Horrible Bosses” is that all of their ideas about crime come from TV and movies; Foxx suggest they do it like in “Strangers on a Train” (“the Danny DeVito movie? I loved that one!”) and Day gets them out of trouble with the cops at one point because of something he saw on an episode of “Law & Order.” There’s even a scene where, during a stakeout, one of the characters passes the time by watching “The Notebook;” we see precisely the same scene that’s being used for those “don’t text or dial” PSAs that play before movies these days.
Sudeikis and Bateman spend most of the film playing straight man to Day’s antics, and Day is so manic and squeaky that he really does need two straight men. Bateman plays the same character he developed on “Arrested Development” and almost always plays since then; a man utterly confident in his own judgment and good sense, despite the crazy antics his crazy friends get him involved in. Sudeikis is a basically good guy who can’t seem to keep his pants on. I liked him less and less and the film progressed.
The banter between Bateman and Sudeikis is often amusing and mildly humorous; this is what would pass for jokes in most comedies. But then it’s punctuated perfectly by Day’s manic energy. His performance is hilarious, unpredictably, perfectly timed, and wonderfully physical. He elicits laugh after laugh. I haven’t laughed this hard in a movie theater for years. It’s a wonder to behold, and I came away thoroughly impressed by how one brilliant performance can elevate the rest of the material around it.
It’s pretty easy and obvious to compare Day’s performance here to Zach Galafianakis’ in “The Hangover” (the first one, not this summer’s warmed-over sequel.) Both are the manic wildcard in ensemble films about mild-mannered suburbanites caught up in a world where they don’t belong or know how to behave. The cry for “more Zach!” after the “The Hangover” both made Galafianakis a star and dimmed his performance therein; it’s become painfully obvious that he can’t carry a movie, or even revisit his past success. I expect the same will be true for Charlie Day; he is high-pitched, shrill and manic; I can’t really imagine him successfully carrying a film, though I’m sure, in the next few years, he’ll be given plenty of chances to try. Back in the day of classic straight man/funny man teams like Abbott & Costello and Laurel & Hardy, the standard business arrangement was a 60/40 split, with the straight man getting the larger cut. The funny man gets the laughs, but the straight man sets them up, and that’s a much harder job. Charlie Day is an immensely talented funny man; if he’s smart, he’ll latch on to a good straight man like Justin Bateman and never make a movie without him. That’s not likely to happen, but if it did, those would be movies I’d be excited to see for years to come.