The Boss is one of those movies that saves most of its credits for the end, and having done little to no research on the film before seeing it – y’know, Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Bell, I can stop you right there – I still managed to predict the director based solely on the sloppy flatness of what had come before. Said filmmaker is one Ben Falcone, “Air Marshall Jon” from Bridesmaids, comic actor par excellence, and husband of star Melissa McCarthy. The couple co-wrote his previous directorial effort, her 2014 vehicle Tammy; he also directed that film. And put together, they paint a puzzling picture, of a powerhouse talent and the person who knows her best somehow exhibiting little to no insight into what makes her funny.
What’s particularly frustrating about The Boss is its promise, at least in terms of raw material. McCarthy plays Michelle Darnell, a fabulously wealthy business mogul and financial wizard who’s busted for Martha Stewart-esque insider trading and does a few months of very soft labor (“Look at me, fightin’ for my life in the yard!” she insists, while returning the volley of her tennis partner). Upon release, she finds her home has been taken, her riches confiscated, and her business opportunities reduced to nil. About the only door she can still jam open is that of her former, long-suffering assistant Claire (Kristen Bell) – whose daughter proves an unexpected source for Michelle’s big comeback.
McCarthy clearly has a great time playing Michelle’s monstrous iteration. Her opening scene, a motivational speech/capitalism pep rally at a giant arena, finds her descending to the stage atop a giant golden hawk and performing “All I Do Is Win” with T-Pain (complete with nimble, well-executed choreography). It’s a giddy treat, and the picture’s best scenes are those in which McCarthy exerts her considerable, spiky edge – arias of total verbal destruction, in which she tears apart her foes with a combination of uproarious malice and inventive profanity, the Mamet-esque takedown as empowerment manifesto.
But as with Tammy, McCarthy and Falcone (and newly added co-writer Steve Mallory) insist on forcing McCarthy’s magic into the confines of a feel-good formula. She can’t just be a tough cookie – she has to be the hardened product of a childhood of rejection, so when Claire’s kid gives her a picture of the three of them in a homemade “FAMILY” frame, well, you can pretty accurately guess what happens next. She must, of course, hurt those who’ve dared to love her, and then must redeem herself, etc. etc.
That creaky arc isn’t The Boss’ only trouble; Falcone again adopts an exhaustingly generic style seemingly copped from CW dramadies, all poppy musical transitions and vague beauty shots, and while Bell gets a couple of reactive laughs, the idea of taking an actor so offhandedly, naturally funny (see pretty much any of her Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson appearances) and binding her up in a bland straight-woman role like this is confounding.
But their misunderstanding of McCarthy’s talents and appeal are the overarching problem, and the must puzzling one. The obscene heights she scales in The Boss’s best moments approach those of her two funniest vehicles to date, The Heat and Spy, and one can’t help coming away from those two films and the Falcone-helmed duo with the undeniable impression that Feig simply “gets” McCarthy better than she and her husband do. She’s funniest when she’s hardcore; her worst movies, this and Tammy and Identity Thief, force her to go all soft. The Feig pictures expect the world to bend to her; the Falcones expect her to bend to the world. That’s bad messaging, but more importantly, it’s bad comedy.
The Boss is out Friday in wide release.