22 July 2011

Horrible Bosses/Friends with Benefits

From left, Jason Bateman, Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis are shown in a scene from "Horrible Bosses."
Much has been made of the glut of R-rated comedies hitting theaters, with this year already seeing the highs of “Bridesmaids” and “Paul;” the lows of “Your Highness,” “No Strings Attached” and “Bad Teacher;” and the middle ground of “The Hangover Part II.”

Add two more to the high category—“Horrible Bosses” and “Friends with Benefits.”

“Horrible Bosses”" easily is the best of the bunch, with an ingenious though not quite original premise, genuine wit and a fantastic cast.

Nick (Jason Bateman, the best comedy straight man we have today) works for a man (Kevin Spacey, at his smarmy best) who all but promises him a big promotion only to later take the job himself. Dale (Charlie Day of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”) is a constant victim of sexual harassment by his boss (Jennifer Aniston, cast completely against type). Kurt (Jason Sudeikis of “Saturday Night Live”) actually enjoys his job, but that changes when his kindly boss (Donald Sutherland) dies and his maniacal, cokehead son (Colin Farrell, sporting a wicked combover) takes over.

The solution to their problems starts as an offhand joke over a few beers. But soon they’re hiring a “murder consultant” (Jamie Foxx) and name-checking Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train” (1951) and the Danny DeVito movie “Throw Momma from the Train” (1987) as they plot the demise of their employers.

Seth Gordon, a veteran of the best current TV comedies (“Parks and Recreation,” “Community,” “The Office”), directs with a sense of rhythm that places his cast’s impeccable comic timing at the fore. He’s not afraid to take the movie into dark, twisted places, and the wonderful performances make it easy for us to follow.

Justin Timberlake, left, and Mila Kunis are shown in a scene from "Friends with Benefits."
“Friends with Benefits” comes with the same premise as the aforementioned “No Strings Attached”—two good friends decide to leave emotions behind to embark on a purely physical relationship—backing up Roger Ebert’s oft-repeated quote: “A movie is not about what it is about, but how it is about it.”

In “Strings,” Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman are unlikable bores Portman’s character is especially mean who seem to lack the necessary connection to be friends or lovers. “Friends with Benefits” features Justin Timberlake, following up his electric performance in last year’s “The Social Network” with an effective leading man turn, and Mila Kunis, giving off some of the magnetism we haven’t seen from her since “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (2008), as, respectively, Dylan, the new art director at GQ magazine, and Jamie, the corporate headhunter who found him in Los Angeles and brought him to New York to take the job.

The inherent likability of the two leads alone elevates this above the average comedy. Their willingness—especially Timberlake’s—to appear foolish doesn’t hurt either.

The supporting cast is strong, too Patricia Clarkson as Jamie’s absentminded, free spirit mother; Richard Jenkins as Dylan’s aging father; Jenna Elfman as Dylan’s loving, supportive sister; and maybe best of all, Woody Harrelson as the GQ sports editor.

Directed by Will Gluck (“Easy A”), “Friends with Benefits” wants us to think it is not the typical romantic comedy; characters repeatedly comment on the genre’s conventions. But clich├ęs can be avoided for only so long, and the movie starts to run out of steam in its final act. But it’s an acceptable trade for the good work leading up to it.

Greg's Grades: “Horrible Bosses,” A-; “Friends with Benefits,” B

(“Horrible Bosses,” rated R for crude and sexual content, pervasive language and some drug material; 98 minutes. “Friends with Benefits,” rated R for crude and sexual content, pervasive language and some drug material; 109 minutes.)

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