*. Timing is everything in comedy. That’s true not just when it comes to delivering lines but for movies hitting audiences at the right cultural moment.
*. The script for this one had been passed over in 2005, though it had sold for six figures. That’s Hollywood. But it kept kicking around, waiting for an opening. That opening came with the rise of the “bro comedy” in the TV series Entourage (2004-2011) and films like The Hangover (2009), and the subprime mortgage meltdown making everyone feel a bit more anxious. The financial crisis gives us Kenny Sommerfeld here, a fellow who used to work at Lehman Brothers but who now sells handjobs.
*. As Roger Ebert observed: “The movie causes particularly painful twinges at this moment in American history when employees are in a weak position and their bosses know it.” So . . . the time was right.
*. The “weak position” employees feel themselves in is underscored by that ultimate representation of authority, the private desk. This is used to mark the status of all the bosses, as well as Motherfucker Jones and the police. Our loser heroes are sequentially and collectively arrayed and humiliated before them, as though being arraigned at some adult tribunal. Meanwhile, we never see them at desks of their own.
*. The “bro comedy” became its own genre during these years. Our heroes are a grown-up gang of highschool pals, except they haven’t really grown up. Only Dale here is contemplating marriage, and they all share a sense of threatened sexuality. Nick and Kurt argue over who would be most “rapeable” in prison. Dale is upset when Jennifer Aniston suggests that he sounds a little bit “faggot” (despite the fact that he’s engaged). Kurt is embarassed on the shopping expedition when he finds himself staring at a man’s ass.
*. The humour arises from the way these child-men are so useless at anything that is not their job. Nick seems to have done well in the highly competitive world of finance. Kurt is a responsible and presumably competent accountant. Dale is a qualified dental assistant. But outside the office they’re pretty much clueless. They don’t belong in the real world. Or the adult world. They still need supervision, or someone taking care of them.
*. Jason Bateman’s Nick come closest to filling this role, though he’s still out of his depth when it comes to the murder plot. This also fits in with his other role in the film, which is to be the straight man in a world where everyone around him is either insane or incredibly stupid. He had the same duty in the TV series Arrested Development, so he has the part down.
*. This is the basic set-up for a lot of the comedy of this period. It works well with improvisation because all the actors have to do is stay in character, keep a straight face, and absurdity will naturally result.
*. The three horrible bosses are the real stars of the show, since they are the most extreme types, with Colin Farrell being the most interesting because he’s cast against his more familiar image (I almost didn’t recognize him at first).
*. Sexual harassment by a female boss. It’s a tricky place to go, not because of any politically correct taboo being broken (hey! would we be laughing at this if it were a guy?) but because it’s so hard to find the right note of humour in the situation. Would it be funnier if Aniston’s character was less attractive? A cougar? Obese? Or would that be sexist? It’s an awkward part, and unfortunately Aniston, who sells it well, doesn’t have a lot of good lines to work with.
*. But then this isn’t a well written movie. It works, when it does, just by giving familiar situations that extra comic turn of the screw. The end credits are interspersed with bloopers and outtakes. They’re just as funny as the rest of the movie, and not out of place.