Jason Sudeikis, left, Charlie Day and Jason Bateman star in "Horrible… (John P. Johnson / Warner…)
You can practically hear little coils of contempt tightening inside Jason Bateman every time he's in a pickle on screen. In the new comedy "Horrible Bosses" the Bateman specialty is the what-are-you-trying-to-tell-me response. At one point in the film, when confronted with some improbable information, the "Arrested Development" alum asks one of his partners in idiot crime: "You found a hit man online?"
"Horrible Bosses" is not Noel Coward, nor is it trying to be. And any sort of comedy benefits from an underplayer in its midst.
Cleverly structured, "Horrible Bosses" works in spite of its cruder, scrotum-centric instincts. Director Seth Gordon's film was produced by Brett Ratner and Jay Stern, who made their pile on the "Rush Hour" films. Going in, therefore, you know you'll be subjected to a full complement of screeching tires and pointless mayhem, only tangentially related to the reasons people might get a few laughs out of this thing.
Ground down by their respective, heinous supervisors, the friends played by Bateman (as Nick, the would-be manager), Jason Sudeikis (an accountant and full-time horn dog) and panic-prone Charlie Day (playing a relentlessly harassed dental assistant) dare themselves into becoming murderers — three dead, bad bosses for the price of one.
Their South-Central L.A. "murder consultant," played by Jamie Foxx, offers advice and counsel. The adversaries in "Horrible Bosses" provide the targets.
Kevin Spacey, the only man in American movies drier and more ironic than Bateman, dines out on the role of Bateman's boss, a smug control freak and manipulator. Colin Farrell brings massive, slobby relish (and a stunning comb-over) to Sudeikis' tormentor, a cocaine fiend who fancies himself a martial arts master. Jennifer Aniston scanties around as the predatory dentist who employs, harasses and eventually blackmails Day, thus tipping him and his cohorts into homicidal go-mode.
"Strangers on a Train" and "Throw Momma From the Train" are not simply purloined here. They're actually name-checked in Foxx's introductory scene in a way that acknowledges the thievery on the fly.
The script has a good sense of direction; you know where it's going, yet supporting characters that include Foxx's advisor and the unseen voice of an astute GPS have a way of re-entering at opportune moments.
The byplay among the three leads includes an overeager number of anal-rape references (the optimal number being "none"), but Bateman, Day and Sudeikis feed off one another's energies in a pleasing way. One of the best sight gags in "Horrible Bosses" presents one of the few clean jokes in the picture: Day's attempt to slide under an automatic garage door before it hits the pavement. Why is this funny? It's funny because director Gordon held the shot. He didn't cut for "maximum comic impact," the way his own producer, Ratner, likely would have.
Aniston's role isn't Aniston's fault. Playing a conniver whose voracious sexual appetite has turned her into a freak, Aniston is game. Yet the way this foil has been conceived she's not much fun. "Horrible Bosses" exists in the usual arrested-development Boys Town of early 21st century Hollywood comedy; there's no room for a witty or surprising female character in this town, only maniacal sluts or more easygoing ones. (Julie Bowen of "Modern Family" plays the Spacey character's pliable wife.)
It's a credit to the cast and, at their liveliest, to the writers that the results percolate in a way movies such as "The Hangover Part II" never did. And keep an eye on Day; working here in apt counterpoint to Bateman, Mr. Minimalism, the bearded imp from "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" scores substantial laughs by letting his thick-headed panic escalate, slowly, so that his voice seems to be changing all over again, 20 years after adolescence.