22 Jump Street being the self-reflexive exception that proves the rule, Horrible Bosses 2 provides 2014 with yet another unnecessary reminder that, while comedy sequels are very difficult to make well, they are very easy to make anyway. While Dumb and Dumber To had two decades of nostalgia in its corner, and Anchorman 2 at least had the gall to try and one-up a modern classic, Horrible Bosses 2 has neither time nor ambition on its side. It embodies the “let it ride!” approach that many surprise comedy hits take when delivering a follow-up, yet few capitalize on to the benefit of anyone but a studio. It’s a movie that doesn’t bet on itself so much as against the audience’s tolerance for a warmed-over second helping of the exact same movie they saw three years ago.
Helpfully self-diagnosing itself with a case of “reverse Stockholm syndrome,” Horrible Bosses 2 makes clear why it was more than just the first film’s clever premise that would be hard to replicate for a sequel. While the hook of film and TV celebrities playing assholes certainly had its appeal, the dynamic central trio of Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day established a solid foundation from which to launch a potentially pitch black comedy about working stiffs killing their awful employers.
The original never went to such extremes, using the ineptitude of the lead characters to underline the practical reasons for not committing homicide instead of just the boring old moral ones. The petulant camaraderie of the stars made Nick (Bateman), Kurt (Sudeikis) and Dale (Day) charming despite both their murderous intent, and generally outlandish behaviour. When the sequel sees the trio swindled out of a business deal by a corporate shark (Christoph Waltz, too underutilized to make much an impression), it’s not long before they hatch a harebrained scheme to kidnap the magnate’s equally unctuous son (Chris Pine) for ransom.
Where the first film walked a just-believable-enough path of movie logic to turn its average Joes into would-be killers, Horrible Bosses 2 treats sociopathy as a baseline. That the guys didn’t get caught for attempted murder is used as proof of their ability to pull off another caper, despite their previous failings. In ignoring the lesson of the first film, Horrible Bosses 2 also forgets the characters as well. The rough superego, ego, id psychology of the group is woefully unbalanced this time out, with Nick being the smarmy stick-in-the-mud responsible for saying no a thousand times to Kurt and Dale’s idiotic ideas, before inevitably joining in.
Forced to repeat the same gags and character beats as they did before, the formerly believable friendship shared by the main three reveals itself as a form of codependent enabling. And, with the unchecked insanity comes repetition. Horrible Bosses 2 burns through the goodwill engendered by the first film by lazily going through the motions of its predecessor, just at a higher intensity. The bickering is shriller, louder, and longer, the rape and dick jokes are so frequent that they could rule over all other attempts at humor as a coalition government, and the number of off-colour synonyms for genitalia used by Jennifer “Oh My God, She’s Saying Dirty Words!” Aniston are legion.
Director and co-writer Sean Anders treats Horrible Bosses as a blueprint instead of a springboard, ensuring that every major laugh line and character from the original are trotted back out so that we may note that, yes, this is a thing from last time. Worried you may not remember a joke from three years ago, characters will often openly state when such a reference is being made. Yes, Horrible Bosses 2 is that sort of comedy, one where simply referring to something from popular culture is considered a joke. Not replicating a moment or iconic image from pop culture, mind you; merely mentioning the name of a movie, or a song, is, in the film’s mind, creative enough to be worthy of your attention.
The well-timed slapstick interplay developed under Seth Gordon’s direction goes to waste with Anders at the helm, who would rather every scene minimize physicality and maximize volume. Even an indifferently staged sight gag involving Day and a clothing closet stands out as inspired compared to the scatological riffing the film is always trying to pull some gold out of. It digs furiously enough to find the occasional nugget, but more often, the stars just fall back on cursing and yelling as a supplement to weak, or non-existent jokes.
You get the sense the actors know this too, as the déjà vu of Horrible Bosses 2 extends to the blooper reel credits call. The energetic thrill of feeling like you’re getting away with something is gone, replaced with actors poking fun at the script instead of each other. The guest spots from returning actors Jamie Foxx and Kevin Spacey serve their role as star-powered distractions, but that Pine can eke out most of the laughs in scenes shared with the Day, Sudeikis and Bateman is a sad follow-up to what once looked like a comedy trio to be reckoned with.
Horrible Bosses 2 does worse than just live in the shadow of the predecessor it so slavishly imitates: it makes one doubt whether the original can still be of value if something cast from its mold can be this feeble.