A solid studio comedy and star-vehicle for the ever-entertaining McCarthy.
If you saw her recent hosting stint on Saturday Night Live, you know that it’s easy to imagine an alternate universe in which Melissa McCarthy is an SNL alum, using the late night show as a springboard in very much the same way Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have. McCarthy’s new comedic venture, The Boss, directed by her husband, Ben Falcone, feels like a movie based on one of her most popular characters from said alternate-universe SNL (in our reality, it’s a character she, Falcone and collaborator Steve Mallory created during their time with The Groundlings). It’s an unabashed star-vehicle that, while not as successful or funny as last year’s Spy, is still solid entertainment and even harbors some heartfelt moments that add some unexpected dimension to an otherwise straightforward story.
McCarthy plays Michelle Darnell, an enterprising billionaire/motivational speaker who wins at everything, stomps over everyone, and pushes away anyone who gets too close to her heart. Ethically impaired and insanely confident, Darnell is both a symbol of white privilege and female empowerment, giving McCarthy lots of room to flaunt her gift of gab and sling inventive vulgarities like only she can (the movie’s R rating is essential). One minute she’s asking her dutiful assistant Claire (Kristen Bell) to apply whitener to her teeth, a plastic contraption holding her mouth open so wide she looks like the Predator; the next, she’s demanding her helicopter pilot remove his shirt as they fly off into the night sky. Darnell is McCarthy’s critique on rich, greedy people and it’s really funny for the most part though some jokes (like a recurring one involving her bullying a young girl for not being effeminate enough) fall absolutely flat. Overall, it’s a sharp performance with some hit-or-miss material, which is common for movies of The Boss‘ ilk.
The story starts with a montage origin story, showing how Michelle grew up an orphan, suffering rejection after rejection as she struggled to find a home and a family. Eventually, she gives up and adopts a one-versus-all attitude, becoming a cutthroat, take-no-prisoners, turtleneck-wearing finance mogul. One of her victims on her rise to the top was ex-lover and fellow big-business bastard Renault (Peter Dinklage), who’s since dedicated his career to stealing and piggybacking on Michelle’s success (though he still has a burning passion for her “wonderful body”). Renault is presented with the perfect opportunity to strike Michelle down when she’s arrested for a white-collar crime that lands her in rich-person jail for a while (inmate tennis court and all) and results in the government seizing all of her assets and belongings.
The only person Michelle can turn to is Claire, who’s hesitant to take her former, tactless, self-obsessed boss in from off the street. Her apartment is cramped as it is, but Claire’s daughter Rachel (Ella Anderson, cute as a button and full of potential) convinces her to lend a helping hand. From there, a family drama develops, with Michelle building a Girl Scout-adjacent brownie-selling empire for Rachel and her friends; everything goes swimmingly until Claire and Rachel start to feel like a family, prompting Michelle to run away scared and sell the company to the slimy Renault. It’s as contrived a plot as any, but McCarthy makes it work with a tearful scene that sees Michelle admit to her deepest faults. In a movie full of absurdist, in-your-face humor (in an Anchorman-inspired fight scene, McCarthy clotheslines a little girl in slo-mo), this admission of guilt actually feels real, almost jarringly so. The rest of the chosen-family drama that plays out isn’t nearly as genuine, though, which is a big problem considering that the story essentially hinges on the relationship between the three leading women.
The crudeness of the comedy won’t be for everyone, but I took a fair measure of enjoyment in watching a Girl Scout gang war break out in a quiet, posh neighborhood. Screwball physical comedy is well within McCarthy’s wheelhouse, and she goes for it big-time, from getting pancaked by a faulty sofabed to selling the classic fall-down-the-stairs. Perhaps the film’s biggest feather in its cap is that it passes the Bechdel test with flying colors—this is a movie driven by women, with men existing only on the periphery, which is always refreshing in the male-dominated Hollywood landscape. McCarthy’s been better in other projects, but The Boss is nonetheless a crudely entertaining studio comedy and a solid showcase of the surging actor’s many talents.