Congratulations, America, your number one movie in all the land is The Boss Baby, a cartoon comedy about – you may need to sit down to fully comprehend this – a baby in a suit who acts like a corporate boss. It made a rather staggering $50 million over its opening weekend (more than twice that of its first-weekend competition, Ghost in the Shell), which is a stark reminder to never underestimate the drawing power of a family movie when there are parents out there with kids they’d like to distract for 97 minutes (aka, why I’ve seen it). But wait! Maybe that’s not why people went to see it! Maybe they went because it’s not actually about a baby in a suit who acts like a corporate boss; maybe they went because it’s actually about President Donald Trump.
“Just a corny kidflick – or a subtle political satire?” asks The Guardian. Film Inquiry dubs it “Donald Trump, The Diaper Years.” The New York Post’s Kyle Smith (y’know, the “Women don’t get Goodfellas” guy) snickers, “Donald Trump is going to love the new Alec Baldwin movie.” And Vulture’s Emily Yoshida insists, “Stop saying every piece of art is about Trump. Only Boss Baby is about Trump.” The piece is more complicated than the headline, of course; in fact, along the way, she gets how “[Cultural Object] represents Trump’s America” has become the go-to thinkpiece crutch for a whole lotta culture writers.
And look, hey, guilty as charged. We ran our first of many nearly a full year ago now, drawing a line from our (this is still hard to write!) 45th president to Green Room, and followed with connections to Arrival, Fences, and The Founder, among others. And it is, I hope, an understandable impulse – decoding what popular art says about politics is a long-standing tradition in culture writing, and frankly, in times of crisis like these, it’s not hard to look to artists for interpretation, guidance, comfort. But lines must be drawn here, and that line is The Boss Baby.
So let’s be clear – in case you’re being lured by the promise of a studio cartoon putting Trump in his place – The Boss Baby has fuck-all to do with 45. It’s an absolutely standard-issue doody-joke-and-pop-culture-reference effort from the folks at Dreamworks, of roughly the same trenchant wit and political insight of their many, many Shrek and Madagascar movies. Beyond the very basic “Donald Trump was a businessman, and he governs like a fucking toddler” line of logic, the only reason to make that connection is said Boss Baby carrying the voice of Alec Baldwin, who has spent the past few months doing a (rather mediocre) Donald Trump impression on Saturday Night Live.
But he’s not doing it here. In fact, what Baldwin is doing in The Boss Baby is a drained-of-wit redux of his Jack Donaghy character from 30 Rock – so much so that Tina Fey and Robert Carlock would have a pretty decent infringement/plagiarism case, if they wanted one. His delivery, syntax, worldview, and ambition are all Donaghy Lite (right down to the corporation legend he idolizes, and who ultimately lets him down), though there is a one-line reminder of his “Blake” from Glengarry Glen Ross, which mostly reminds us how much Donaghy had in common with that character, too.
And 30 Rock isn’t the only legacy they’re sullying here. The screenplay by Michael McCullers (whose credits include the Austin Powers sequels and Fey’s Baby Mama) is based loosely – very, very loosely – on Marla Frazee’s charming 2010 picture book, which ingeniously frames the arrival and integration of a new baby in the terms of a demanding boss who requires 24/7 availability for his “meetings” and various whims. (There’s a whole subgenre of these books; Kate Beaton’s recent King Baby wittily covers similar ground. This parenthetical brought to you by Me Having A Three-Year-Old.) And yes, when adapting a ten-minute picture book into a ninety-minute feature, you have to expand it (see Where the Wild Things Are for an example of how to do so). But McCullers ruins Frazee’s text, making the story painfully literal (in the book, the boss baby is still a baby, who can’t talk or walk or organize corporate intrigue) and grafting on an utterly nonsensical plot about a well-organized conspiracy to replace babies with puppies.
It’s a bad movie, to put it mildly, but the accidental alchemy of the Trump win and the (long in-the-can) Baldwin vocal performance has made it seem timelier than it is. It’s gonna be a long four years of moviegoing if every such coincidence is flagged and explored as such; as Freud is said to have put it, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. He probably didn’t say that, though, and he kinda did think everything was a dick. But that’s not the point; the point is, as The Boss Baby proves, sometimes a bad movie is just a bad movie.