This is why so many people complain about sequels sucking – because now Hollywood has taken to sequel-izing even modestly successful one-off comedies. Don’t get me wrong – Horrible Bosses was a total blast back in the summer of 2011, full of big laughs and irresistible characters in a clever concept. I’m just saying I liked it so much that I wish this sequel didn’t exist to tarnish its memory.
It’s a given that cineplexes will be bombarded with sequel upon sequel of every massive franchise, most of which are now derived from comic books or YA novels. And frankly, many of them are able to maintain a certain degree of not only financial but also critical success since they have a standardized template to follow. It’s familiar and it works. Comedy is much tougher to recapture; once the lightning leaves the bottle, it’s hard to jam it back in.
Case-in-point: Horrible Bosses 2, which suffers the fate of any comedic enterprise that attempts to extend its characters past their natural point of legitimacy. Like a Saturday Night Live sketch that turns into an overlong movie or a sitcom on its last legs where the characters eventually become oversized caricatures of themselves, this film takes characters whose existence was clearly defined within the context of the original film and forces them perpendicularly into a quasi-similar premise.
Instead of murder, our familiar heroes Nick (Jason Bateman), Kurt (Jason Sudeikis), and Dale (Charlie Day) are compelled to perpetrate a kidnapping! Rather than finding themselves in ruts at dead-end jobs, they are would-be entrepreneurs who are spurned by a potential investor! Even the basic synopsis feels stressed and superfluous, but that would be acceptable (this is, after all, a comic fantasy world) if the film could manage to be half as funny as its predecessor. Spoiler alert: It isn’t.
Unfortunately, the humor in Horrible Bosses 2 is even more strained than its premise. We are reintroduced to the central trio during a morning show interview to promote their upstart product, one of those wannabe-convenient multifunctional shower heads that are a dime a dozen in late night infomercials. As this opening sequence devolves into a series of shadows-behind-the-shower-curtain sexual double entendres that felt stale in the second Austin Powers movie, we understand what kind of movie this is going to be. This gem is followed up with a gag involving uncomfortable, race-based verbal miscues, which becomes one of the screenplay’s go-to running jokes. Each subsequent iteration lands with the force of nails being hammered into the coffin.
The requisite crime plot is hatched when the boys are, in the most appropriate terms, “screwed over” by a billionaire businessman (Christoph Waltz, whose inimitable screen spice is crudely wasted here) when he buys their idea, watches them waste their lump sum payment on manufacturing costs, and then cuts them loose. And in response, Nick, Kurt, and Dale do what any rational person would do: Hatch a scheme to kidnap the businessman’s son (Chris Pine). Mayhem ensues, of course, at which point the film hits some form of a stride that is somewhat reminiscent of the first film’s verve. Although maybe that has to do with the actors’ talent and chemistry. Bateman, Sudeikis, and Day are a fabulous team, and first film holdovers Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Aniston, and Kevin Spacey make the most of their reduced screen time. But even our favorite familiar elements are tweaked past the point of no return by Sean Anders’ and John Morris’ screenplay (original scribe Michael Markowitz is curiously absent). Bateman always played the put-upon straight man to Sudeikis’ anarchic party animal and Day’s uptight goof, but here the trio is given the full Three Stooges treatment; the only thing missing is Bateman bonking his moron cohorts in the head periodically.
Anders also directs the film, with the same elegant touch he brought to his previous directorial effort, That’s My Boy. (I wouldn’t want to see a sequel to that movie, either.) Swapping one creative team for another clearly didn’t work for this series; unlike the aforementioned comic book franchises, a consistent creative voice is crucial to the success of enduring comedies. There is no consistent creative voice at work in Horrible Bosses 2, nor any rhythm or comedic pace – only puerile, one-note gags strung together by a copycat plot featuring characters we liked before, when they were in a better movie.