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Review:  Melissa McCarthy’s ‘The Boss’ deserves a trip to HR and a pink slip

Melissa McCarthy’s ‘The Boss’ deserves a trip to HR and a pink slip
Michelle Darnell (Melissa McCarthy, left) gets a little cosmetic help from her old assistant, Claire (Kristen Bell), in “The Boss.”
(Hopper Stone)

It is hard to think of a movie squandering the opportunity of a perfectly timed cultural moment quite like “The Boss.” The film stars Melissa McCarthy as a motivational speaker, mogul and financial self-help guru who loses everything after going to jail for insider trading and is determined to claw her way back to the top.

Just imagine the filmmakers’ good fortune in tapping into issues that appeal to people on both sides of the current political divide. In the right hands, “The Boss” could skewer the brash ambition and entitled certitude of a Donald Trump type and the desire to see all that dismantled and discarded by Bernie Sanders-style supporters. But these are not the right hands.

Melissa McCarthy’s ‘The Boss’ deserves a trip to HR and a pink slip
Michelle Darnell (Melissa McCarthy, left) and Claire (Kristen Bell) lead their Darnell’s Darlings in the new film “The Boss.”
(Hopper Stone)

Directed by Ben Falcone, the film’s script is credited to Falcone, McCarthy and Steve Mallory. (McCarthy and Falcone are married.) They are blatantly not interested in the very things that could give their story bite; rather, they prefer to focus on the emotional redemption arc of having McCarthy’s orphaned character, Michelle Darnell, learn to let other people in emotionally. Out of jail and with nowhere to go, she imposes herself on former assistant Claire (Kristen Bell) and Claire’s adolescent daughter, forming a nascent family for the very first time.

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McCarthy’s screen persona is more complicated than it seems on the surface. The combination of her gifts for physical comedy and improvisational dexterity along with her ability to quickly shift and home in on emotional beats is difficult to capture. Paul Feig, who directed McCarthy to her best work in “Bridesmaids” and “Spy,” has been able to bring out an elegant harmony in McCarthy’s performances. Here, as in their previous collaboration on the needlessly ugly “Tammy,” Falcone tends to indulge her extremes, resulting in something that feels disjointed.

The press notes for the film say that McCarthy first came up with the character of Michelle Darnell years ago while a member of the Groundlings comedy troupe in Los Angeles. This may explain why the story doesn’t sync up the character to the current cultural mood, but what is more curious is how the filmmakers chose to structure their story. There is really very little time spent on Darnell in her prime, so her fall isn’t felt very strongly. Most of the film is occupied by her plan to create a new fortune by selling Claire’s homemade brownies as a partially for-profit girls’ club-fundraising enterprise.

A riotous street fight between rival baked goods factions feels lifted straight from the “Anchorman” movies, perhaps not surprising given that those films’ masterminds, Adam McKay and Will Ferrell, are also producers on “The Boss.” But when McCarthy clotheslines an adolescent girl, the humor suddenly drains from the situation. The movie isn’t fantastical enough to sustain itself outside the bounds of reality, yet every time something real creeps in, the movie stumbles and cowers.

The film has no genuine interest in the way business works or exactly how a low-stakes charitable endeavor is transformed into something much larger. It just happens. The finale involving the retrieval of a signed contract from a business rival (played by Peter Dinklage) is utterly nonsensical on multiple levels. The picture ends on a call-back to an earlier joke that feels strained and desperate, as if the filmmakers were scrambling to wrap up a story they knew they hadn’t successfully concluded.

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Even given all that, the movie is not without its charms and moments. An early scene between McCarthy, Bell and Cedric Yarbrough has a liveliness and self-aware absurdity that is missing from much of the rest of the film. (Yarbrough’s energy as McCarthy’s yes-man feels fresh, but the character is jettisoned far too soon.) One of the film’s funniest scenes comes when McCarthy attempts to help Bell dress for a date. There is a discussion about boobs and bras that is at once outrageous and revealing, the kind of disarming humor that the movie could use a lot more of.

There is no way to predict where lightning might strike, or how to catch it in a bottle. The recently concluded TV miniseries “The People v. O.J. Simpson” captured and crystallized the current state of the nation better than anyone might possibly have imagined. Need McCarthy and Falcone have turned in a satirical treatise on wealth, ambition and what really matters in life? No, but they might have created a movie that was about something, that dared to dig deeply into ideas they prefer to only timidly skim by, rather than this soft, disappointing and scattershot effort. That would have made “The Boss” truly baller.

mark.olsen@latimes.com

Twitter: @IndieFocus

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‘The Boss’

Running Time: 1 hour, 39 minutes

MPAA rating: R, for sexual content, language and brief drug use

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Playing: In wide release


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