24 Frames

Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Horrible Bosses

Comedy: How deep will the R-rated renaissance run?

July 11, 2011 | 10:48 am

There have been very few surprise hits in this year of modest box office and relentless sequels. Topping the short list is "Bridesmaids," which has stormed its way to nearly $160 million in domestic receipts. While not nearly the same sort of phenomenon, "Bad Teacher" has been a sleeper in its own right, garnering $79 million to date. And this weekend, "Horrible Bosses" got off to a solid start, taking in a higher-than-expected $28 million to beat out Kevin James' "Zookeeper" as the weekend's biggest new release.

What these three films have in common is not only that they're comedies but that they also are, of course, bawdy and R-rated.  If "Bosses"  is able to hits the $75-million mark, it will make 2011 the first year ever that at least four R-rated comedies have topped that number (joining "The Hangover: Part 2").

All three of 2011's racy originals, it should be said, were jump-started and greenlighted after "The Hangover" became the most successful R-rated comedy of all time in 2009, and all three are, in a sense, the first fruits of the post-"Hangover" boom.

My colleague Ben Fritz wrote recently about the changing economics for Hollywood comedies. Studios are less willing to greenlight comedies at bigger budgets, he wrote -- a function, in part, of the growing power of the international box office, where American comedies typically don't play as well. But  this globalization may paradoxically be helping R-rated comedies. Movies in this genre are often made for a price and seen as a more niche play so don't need the same kind of worldwide receipts; it's the bigger budget, all-ages comedies that are taking a beating.

There's also an argument to be made that R-rated comedies are where much of the filmmaking talent has now gravitated. From a quality standpoint, "Bridesmaids," "Bad Teacher" and "Bosses" more than hold their own against the high-profile PG-13 comedies of 2011, "Just Go With It" and "Arthur" (although the R-rated comedy camp will have to live with "Hall Pass" and "Your Highness").

But if this trio of summer originals is born of the "The Hangover," what will these movies in turn generate in the next few years? Success tends to attract a crowd, which sometimes means pale knockoffs. "I think the quality will go down for a little while, because studios will be jumping all over these things, and that may just mean going as dirty as possible without actually making it original or comedic," "Horrible Bosses" co-writer Jonathan Goldstein told 24 Frames.

When you look at the history of the genre, he may have a point. The modern R-rated comedy was essentially born in 1978 with National Lampoon's "Animal House." John Landis' frat-house film became the second highest-grossing movie of that year and yielded a fertile period. In the four years that followed, we got a slew of R-rated classics: "Porky's," "Caddyshack," "Fast Times at Ridgemont High."

But the period proved to be short-lived. Hollywood did turn out "Revenge of the Nerds" in 1984, but the R-rated comedy soon got bogged down in sequels and poor imitations like "Spring Break." The category then went into a lull before being reborn with "American Pie" more than a decade later (and then nearly disappeared again before the Apatow boom of the latter 2000s).

This all may seem like the normal cycle of the movie business, but R-rated comedies tend to move in periods of sharper boom and bust: filmmakers figure out how to break a taboo, then that gets tired, so they need to wait a few years for new taboos, and new ways to break them.

This year has seen new elements, such as the workplace and women, tossed into the mix, and it's given the R-rated comedy a certain freshness. We may yet see a few more movies cleverly riffing off these ideas. (Even before the release, there had already been some discussions of a "Horrible Bosses" sequel, Goldstein said.) And then, like any dirty prank, we may find that it just gets a little  old.


Box office: Newcomers Horrible Bosses and Zookeeper hold their own

Studio comedies are a tough sell in Hollywood

Horrible Bosses: The Freaks and Geeks connection

— Steven Zeitchik


Photo: "Horrible Bosses." Credit: Warner Bros.

'Horrible Bosses': The 'Freaks and Geeks' connection

July 8, 2011 |  5:06 pm

Screenwriter John Francis Daley finds that he elicits a certain reaction when he walks into a Hollywood meeting.

"I don't think anyone associates me with acting until I go into the room, and then their eyes light up and they say, 'Wait, you're that guy from 'Freaks and Geeks,' " Daley recalled over iced tea this week.

"And I roll my eyes," adds his writing partner, Jonathan Goldstein.

Daley is indeed that guy -- the one given a kind of sideways pop-culture immortality as Sam Weir, the likably normal kid at the center of Judd Apatow's misfit TV constellation more than a decade ago.

Daley still acts -- he has a supporting part on the TV procedural "Bones" -- but he has moved beyond fictitious high school to a career as a screenwriter. He slides over the tassel on his cap this weekend, when his first produced script, the R-rated comedy "Horrible Bosses," opens across the country.

Goldstein has his own unusual backstory. A Harvard-educated attorney, he decided a few years into practicing law that he'd had enough of the legal life and moved to Los Angeles to pursue television and film writing. "I always had this comedic sensibility that I didn't knew what to do with, "he said.

Dale It was Goldstein's time at a large New York law firm that actually inspired  "Bosses."  "It was a generally miserable environment," Goldstein said of the job. "There are always people just around the corner who can ruin your day, or your weekend, or your month. It was the kind of thing that felt like it wasn't there to serve the client but someone's own desire for power."

The movie's bosses -- Kevin Spacey's cold, cruel bigwig, Jennifer Aniston's sexually predatory dentist and Colin Farrell's obnoxious, cokehead entrepreneur  -- go deep into abuser territory, prompting three friends (Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day) to hatch a plan to murder one anothers' employers. The tone veers between absurdist and natural as the three banter, often crudely, and start tentatively down a criminal path.

"This is something of a black comedy, which is a tough thing to pull off. You have to walk the line between the characters being sympathetic but also not chickening out from your premise," Goldstein said. Added Daley: "We need to see someone die at some point."

Daley said he knows Apatow a little from his time on "Freaks and Geeks." And it was the success of Todd Phillips' "The Hangover" that jump-started development on "Horrible Bosses." But with "Bosses," Daley and his partner have the distinction of getting an R-rated comedy made without an assist from the two dominant R-rated comedy mafias run by Apatow and Phillips. ("That's not by choice," Goldstein said dryly.)

Daley, who came to Hollywood with his family from suburban Chicago while still a teenager, met Goldstein working on the short-lived "The Geena Davis Show" 10 years ago. (Goldstein was writing; Daley acting.) They paired up to sell a spec script, and eventually went on to land writing gigs on several high-profile Hollywood projects, including development titles such as a reboot of National Lampoon's "Vacation" and the Steve Carell magician comedy "Burt Wonderstone," as well as "Bosses," which they overhauled from an early draft by a writer named Michael Markowitz.

Many writing duos are contemporaries who met in a school or other social environment. Goldstein, quietly sardonic, and Daley, dorkily effervescent, met professionally across the actor-screenwriter divide. "When we're writing, John sees things a little more as an actor would," Goldstein said. They also have sought to bridge the generational divide -- at 42, Goldstein is 17 years older than Daley.

While some might view Daley's past as something that shadows him uncomfortably -- he is, after all, No. 94 on VH1's "Greatest Teen Stars," which is a little like being popular in Canada -- the former child actor said his life has worked out pretty much as he planned it.

"I always wanted to write at the same time I wanted to act," he said. "There just aren't many 9-year-old screenwriters out there."


Movie review: 'Horrible Bosses'

Photo gallery: 'Horrible Bosses' premiere

Charlie Day is good at playing the fool

--Steven Zeitchik


Photos: John Francis Daley on "Freaks and Geeks" (top) and last week at the "Horrible Bosses" premiere. Credits: 20th Century Fox; Nina Prommer/EPA


Recommended on Facebook


In Case You Missed It...




Get Alerts on Your Mobile Phone

Sign me up for the following lists: