Film Review – The Boss
In The Boss (2016), Melissa McCarthy plays a self made business tycoon who sees her empire go down the drain when she’s caught for insider trading. Imagine Martha Stewart, but even more brash. After a six-month stint in minimum-security prison, she gets released and has to start from the ground up to make it back to the top of the corporate world. Hijinks ensue, naturally.
Right away, the film treads a precarious line. In a time where corrupt business practices has become a major issue in the public consciousness, making your protagonist a greedy CEO is a hard obstacle to overcome. The fact that she leaves jail showing no signs of rehabilitation doesn’t help either. The character of Michelle Darnell is the creation of McCarthy’s during her time in The Groundlings comedy group. She’s a bulldozer of obscenity – insulting anyone that offers a differing opinion and isn’t shy about stabbing someone in the back if it means advancing her career. She’s condescending, lewd, and selfish, which makes me wonder: why should we care about this character at all?
McCarthy co-wrote the screenplay with her real life husband Ben Falcone (who also directs). Unfortunately, the narrative doesn’t establish the kind of tone it’s going for. It wants to play as an all out farce while injecting heartfelt sentiment, but by doing so sits awkwardly in the middle. We never get a good handle on Michelle. An opening montage attempts to explain why she grew up not trusting others – involving her younger self being repeatedly returned to the orphanage because her adoptive parents were dissatisfied with her. Yet we don’t understand what it is that forced them to bring her back. Was she a bad kid, or just misunderstood? Is her adult self the result of abandonment, or did she always have this personality?
It’s a testament to McCarthy’s skill as a comedienne that she almost makes us forget about all that. Sporting a flaming red hairdo and turtlenecks that ride up just below her bottom lip, McCarthy plays Michelle as a ball of consistent energy. There’s no denying that she is very good at both verbal and physical comedy. Her screen presence alone makes the material better than it should be, but she’s weighed down by a story too flimsy to keep up with her.
Here’s a situation where a movie tries way too hard to find a punch line to a set up that wasn’t funny to begin with. There are too many instances where the screenplay puts McCarthy in a position that garners no laughs, stays with it for much too long, and then tosses her into a pratfall in an act of desperation. When Michelle encounters a group of fellow businessmen and pleads with them to give her a job, Falcone stays with the scene past the point of annoyance. It delves into a mean spirited tirade where Michelle insults everyone present, only to turn around and fall down a flight of stairs. This is a lazy scene that goes for the cheap laugh. There is no wit or sense of creativity. When things start to drag, they throw in some slapstick as though it’ll make things better.
The set up reminds me of Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa (2003), which also featured a crude main character with a hidden soft side. But what makes Bad Santa work is that it knew exactly what kind of movie it was and went with it all the way. It didn’t compromise its approach by turning to schmaltzy scenes of characters suddenly becoming heartfelt. That’s where The Boss comes up short. The best and funniest scene is when Michelle takes it upon herself to help her former assistant Claire (Kristen Bell) and her daughter (Ella Anderson) sell brownies for their girl-scout troupe. Using her business acumen, Michelle renames them “Darnell’s Darlings” and starts making money to the ire of another chapter. The tension comes to a climax in an all out street fight between the two troupes, punctuated by a wagon on fire rolling down the street. This scene works because it understands the absurdity of the situation and takes it to its full potential.
Sadly, we don’t get another scene that matches it. The rest is made up of lackadaisical attempts at comedy. Whether it’s Michelle putting a device in her mouth so we can see her teeth and gums, or getting into a boob slapping fight with Claire, all of the scenarios are shoddily put together, strung by an all too conventional plot. It wastes good work from the supporting cast. Kristen Bell is game as the straight character to Michelle’s wackiness, but she isn’t given much to work with. Her romantic relationship with nice guy Mike (Tyler Labine) is non-existent. Peter Dinklage is severely underused as Renault, Michelle’s former lover and current enemy. Dinklage hams it up with exuberant glee, but he simply doesn’t have enough screen time to be a worthy foil to Michelle, he goes missing for nearly the entirety of the second act.
The Boss works if you ignore things like a good story, character development, witty dialogue, strong editing, and a consistent tone, to name a few. This was like watching a stand up comedian stumble through a joke. It can all be boiled down to one particular scene. When Claire walks into the bathroom to see Michelle applying a massive amount of spray tan over her body, Claire warns her that the spray will appear much darker when dried. We assume the next scene would show Michelle with drastically tanned skin, right? Well, that moment never happens; the punch line never comes. Like the rest of the movie, we’re left scratching our heads asking, “What?”