In a pivotal sequence in Horrible Bosses 2, which opened commercially this week, Nick (Jason Bateman), Kurt (Jason Sudeikis), and Dale (Charlie Day)—a sort of white-collar Three Stooges—are plotting to kidnap the grown son of the ruthless CEO who has bankrupted their independent manufacturing business. Dale proposes they go to the dentist's office where he used to work and steal some laughing gas, which they'll use to knock their victim unconscious. They break into the office after hours, only to be interrupted by the dentist (Jennifer Aniston), who's about to use the waiting room for a session of her sex addicts' support group. Nick, unable to get away in time, gets mistaken for a new member while his friends hide in the bathroom. At first he thinks he's at an AA meeting, and when pressured to share his history (something that would never happen at a real support group), he delivers a vaguely worded "confession" that makes him sound like a gay S&M freak. (As far as we know, the straitlaced Nick is nothing of the sort, which makes the situation that much more embarrassing for him.) The dentist declares she likes trying to "turn" gay men, then promptly kicks out the rest of the group so she can bully Nick into sex. The dentist now preoccupied, Kurt and Dale fetch some laughing gas, then wait in the car and ponder whether Nick's confession was true.
I didn't find this very funny, but the audience with whom I saw Horrible Bosses 2 seemed to dig it. And why not? People have been laughing at shaggy-dog stories about poor schmucks falling into sexually compromising situations since The Canterbury Tales, if not long before that. It can feel good to laugh at what scares or worries us, and while I'd never thought about having to admit my sexual proclivities to a room full of strangers before getting browbeaten into sex by Jennifer Aniston, I can well imagine it being scary or anxiety-inducing.
What unfolds onscreen isn't all that tense, however. Nick's confession gives way to lots of innuendoes about unseemly sex practices, and the actors, spiritedly overplaying, deliver every line to bring the house down. Like Pang Ho-Cheung's Vulgaria, one of my favorite comedies of recent years, the humor of Horrible Bosses 2 has more to do with how the characters talk about taboo subject matter than with the subject matter per se. Yet where Pang's dialogue has a sustained energy, with characters bouncing jokes off of each other, the dialogue in Bosses sounds cobbled together, not unlike the outtakes reel that plays over the end credits of the movie. Lacking any strong connection to situation, character, or even the surrounding dialogue, the excess of dirty innuendoes suggest a cheap effort to hold the audience's attention. (It certainly worked on the audience I was with.)
Cheap and increasingly desperate—just after Bateman acquiesces to Aniston, she says he's free to defecate on her during sex. Later it's revealed that Aniston sodomizes Bateman in the throes of passion. Where comic filmmakers once looked to TV, radio, and popular music for cultural references, the writers of Horrible Bosses 2 seem to have brainstormed ideas while bingeing on Internet fetish porn. The movie seems to take place in a world where everyone is just one step away from being degraded or degrading somebody else. In the opening scene, Dale appears to masturbate Kurt on national TV as the result of an inappropriate camera setup, and all three friends employ a portmanteau that sounds exactly like a terrible racial slur. Later on the CEO's son unleashes a storm of ugly Asian "jokes" at his Chinese maid (which the filmmakers invite us to laugh at in the same manner as Aniston's allusions to sexual degradation), who then retaliates by sticking his electric toothbrush up her ass when he isn't looking—typical of the filmmakers' mercenary approach to humor, we watch the guy brush his teeth a few seconds afterwards.
Horrible Bosses 2 flirts with some interesting subtext, as the motif of physical debasement mirrors the debasement the heroes suffer at the hands of the CEO, who destroys their business just for fun. The CEO, in his ruthlessness and outspoken contempt for other people, embodies the corporate greed that's responsible for the decline of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. and the erosion of middle-class workers' rights—forms of cultural debasement way more far-reaching in their impact than any sex act you can find online. In their attempt to get even with the business world that's debased them, Nick, Kurt, and Dale end up debasing themselves further, yet the filmmakers fail to take advantage of the dramatic irony. Instead they present debasement as an inescapable part of life today, making the problem of unchecked corporate greed seem like mere window dressing. Tellingly the heroes of Horrible Bosses 2 have less trouble saving their business from financial ruin than they do stopping Aniston from fucking Dale's wife.
I unexpectedly found myself thinking about Horrible Bosses 2 when I previewed underground director Blake Eckard's chilling fifth feature Ghosts of Empire Prairie, which Chicago Filmmakers will present on Saturday 12/6 and Wednesday 12/10. (Click here for venue locations and times.) In many ways the film is Bosses' polar opposite: devoid of stars, carefully paced, and deliberately upsetting. Set in a desolated small town in Missouri, the film centers on a 30-ish failed rodeo performer named Lonnie who returns home after a decade on the road. Without anything better to do, he enters into an abusive sexual relationship with Dawn, a girl he knew in high school. When he isn't with her, he spends his time browbeating his younger brother and drunken, elderly father (preeminent underground filmmaker Jon Jost, who also shot and scored the film). Few of the characters we see have jobs, though the empty, polluted settings suggest that the town had once been home to a factory. Standards of common decency have dropped along with the employment rate—most of the conversations we hear are about fucking, fighting, getting drunk, or memories of sexual abuse.
Often Empire Prairie suggests Alexander Payne's Nebraska as viewed on a bad acid trip. In postproduction Eckard manipulated the video cinematography so that it looks washed-out and fuzzy, and the sound design can be disorienting as well. Heated conversations give way to incoherent mumbling—likewise dramatic scenes routinely devolve into stasis or wanton cruelty. And yet the movie generates no small amount of fascination: Eckard's claustrophobic framing, menacing pacing, and not-quite-poetic pulp dialogue (at times the characters sound like they've come out of a Sam Shepard play or a Harry Crews novel) combine to make a ravishing, all-American vision of hell. I'd argue it feels more like the hair-raising stage productions I've seen of Tracy Letts's Killer Joe than William Friedkin's overplayed movie adaptation did.
Empire Prairie offers a considerably different viewing experience than Horrible Bosses 2, though the former trades in imagery that wouldn't be out of place in the latter. In a pivotal scene, Lonnie visits his lover-slash-victim at the dilapidated country bar where she works. He gets drunk, then forces her to have sex with him in the store room. Dawn's boss walks in and promptly fires her. Dawn runs out, and Lonnie, left alone, violently masturbates in front of some empty beer boxes and bags of potato chips that seem to be years past their expiration date—a pathetic man in a pathetic room, asserting his sexual potency because his society offers him no other way to validate himself. (Dawn, a single mother of two who's slept with most of the men in town, is the only person Lonnie meets who seems to get him.) This scene sets off a series of increasingly painful encounters and revelations. The film climaxes with some downright disgusting revelations about the characters' pasts, yet we're unlikely to flinch by the time we hear them, since the movie has established a plausibly awful context. As in Horrible Bosses 2 degradation has become a way of life for its characters, but unlike the characters of Bosses, these people have to live with the consequences of being degraded.