by Philip Price
Melissa McCarthy is more or less unstoppable. She is a movie star unlike anyone else at the moment and in a few years we’ll likely look back on 2015-2016 as her prime years of output thus the reason we are not only being treated to another McCarthy/Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids,” “The Heat,” “SPY”) collaboration this year in the “Ghostbusters” reboot, but also have the second offering from McCarthy and her producing/directing/writing husband, Ben Falcone, in “The Boss.” Taken simply as a follow-up to their last directorial effort, 2014's “Tammy,” this is a huge leap forward in terms of quality. It was a strange transition of sorts as “Tammy” was the first project where McCarthy used her much-earned name above the title to pull some strings and make a project that would seemingly be close to her heart. This could only signal that the comedy and story would be something that was carefully cultivated by the husband/wife team and would certainly come across with more of an edge and better developed characters than most comedies these days, right? One would think so, but for all the optimism I held for “Tammy” McCarthy and Falcone let me down in the toughest of ways in that not only did it not make me laugh, but the entire affair felt pointless. And so, when I caught wind that McCarthy and Falcone would get the opportunity to make another movie off of the $100 million worldwide haul that “Tammy” earned on a $20 million budget I didn't expect much. Maybe it was those tempered expectations that led to the more enjoyable experience I had with “The Boss,” but I have to believe the overall improvements in every aspect had more to do with this than grim assumptions. There is real structure to the story, actual punch lines to (most) of the jokes, and character development that felt due more to the storytelling than the improvisational skills of the actors. In short, “The Boss” feels like an actual movie. It may feel like a picturesque romantic comedy in its aesthetic with raunchy male anatomy jokes thrown in for good measure, but an actual movie nonetheless.
McCarthy plays Michelle Darnell, a self-made titan of industry who swore off family and any other personal connections due to a childhood spent in foster care. What the movie also tells us though, and asks us to slightly ignore in terms of reality while still laughing at the joke within, is that Michelle was returned several times to the orphanage run by Sister Aluminata (Margo Martindale) because no one could apparently stand her. Sure, you can't return children like you can the wrong filter for your lawn mower, but the point is that Michelle had to be pretty awful, even as a kid. It should also be noted that “The Boss” is betting big on nature making her this way as she was returned to the orphanage as early as the age of five. The point of the matter is, Michelle is clearly not the greatest person to have in your corner and the film goes to great lengths to show us just how evil and detached she can be before asking us to grant her redemption. This is a pattern with McCarthy movies whether it be “Identity Thief,” “The Heat,” “Tammy” or this latest invention. There is a trend of McCarthy doing her best to make audiences feel sympathy for what we realize are terrible people. The obvious reasoning behind this is that it's easier to make mean people funnier. This attitude gives McCarthy an excuse to hurl insults and bad mouth those around her with little care as to whose feelings are getting hurt and when she performs her famous pratfalls we don't feel as bad for laughing. It makes sense and up to this point McCarthy has varied her roles enough that it hasn't become totally repetitive, but the arc is straining in “The Boss” as the weakest part of this whole thing is that we can see the beats coming from a mile away. Thanks to the trailer we know that Michelle is sent to prison after being caught for insider trading. When she emerges five months later she is ready to rebrand herself by crashing with former assistant Claire (Kristen Bell) and using Claire's daughter Rachel (Ella Anderson) and her troop of Girl Scout-like comrades to make her America's latest sweetheart. What we weren't shown in the trailer we already know will happen because of the obvious set-ups in the first act.
And so, story is not exactly the movie’s strong point, but who didn't see that coming? Just because the movie was never going to be revolutionary in the storytelling department though, doesn't give it an excuse, but what is more disappointing is that it doesn't utilize its opportunities as well as it should. In the beginning I fully expected the moral of this story to be solely about the idea that there is more to life than material things. Michelle is all about her money, her income, and what she can spend it on. She allows this wealth to define her as we can see on full display in an opening power suit performance featuring T-Pain that remixes DJ Khaled's "All I Do is Win," to match Michelle's personal story. It's a great little moment, comically speaking, but paired with her "Family is for suckers" mantra we know where things are heading. When Michelle is eventually released from prison and no one is there to pick her up it only reinforces this point further. A funny thing happens about a half hour in though. After Michelle more or less drops herself into Claire's already full lap she takes Rachel to one of her "Dandelion" meetings where she sees the benefits of running a non-profit that rakes in billions of dollars in cookie sales every year. It is here, where Michelle sees her opportunity to make her way back to the top, that the movie shines a light on a different angle I didn't expect it to take, but abandons all too quickly to really be a highlight or leave an impression on the audience. While what I'm referring to is more or less an out and out commentary on organizations like the Girl Scouts of the USA there is a biting satire to be made if what McCarthy's character points out has any validity to it. Michelle points out that the girls actually doing the work see none of the financial benefit while the promises of that money going back into good causes is only justified by a "social butterfly" badge that require Rachel hold a conversation with someone for a half hour. The material is ripe for mockery, but aside from this single scene where the film highlights some potential exploitation this idea is discarded and we're left with outrageous fight scenes featuring adolescent girls throwing punches at one another and Peter Dinklage with a katana.
In truth, “The Boss” is probably a film best watched with a big crowd. The physical pratfalls that are ultimately unnecessary and feel like lazy versions of punchlines would probably land better if surrounded by friends or a game audience and thus the overall enjoyment of the film in general would also significantly improve. It is only another way that comedies are more subjective than any other genre of film, but while “The Boss” seems indisputably average it certainly could have been so much more as it has so much to play with. For starters, McCarthy and co-star Kristen Bell have some pretty fantastic chemistry when they are allowed to really go at one another. A highlight is a scene near the beginning where Bell's Claire attempts to whiten her boss's teeth as she wears a mouthguard and Michelle continues to carry on a conversation with Cedric Yarbrough's Tito that is genuinely funny for the gag alone, but layer in their banter and Claire's consistent frustrations and it only adds to the funny. The film also creates a nice dynamic when Michelle and Claire's roles in each other's lives are more or less reversed and Claire tries desperately to hold onto her upper hand while Michelle's domineering nature can't help but overwhelm the meek single mother despite the fact Michelle is fully depending on Claire after being released from prison. The entire supporting cast is rather terrific actually as not only is Bell game for whatever McCarthy throws at her, but Kristen Schaal contributes a few small moments that utilize her persona well, with Cecily Strong conjuring up a character just weird enough to laugh at, Mary Sohn essentially stealing her sole scene with McCarthy, and Annie Mumolo posing Michelle's only real threat as an opposing business woman mother to one of Rachel's fellow Dandelions. Tyler Labine gets a big break here as Bell's love interest and is given a moment to shine in the films climactic scene where he delivers. Overall, “The Boss” more or less delivers on what it promised as well marking an improvement for Falcone as a director and another hit on his wife's resume.