Melissa McCarthy rages as an emotionally isolated, tyrannical business leader in “The Boss.” Drawing on real-world figures including Martha Stewart, McCarthy updates one of her early Groundlings characters to create Michelle Darnell, a business mogul, author and motivational speaker who is brought low by an insider-trading conviction. Forced to start over after a jail stint, her considerable business acumen and force of will are tested by a partnership with her former assistant (Kristen Bell) and rivalry with a former lover-turned-enemy (Peter Dinklage). Directed and co-written by McCarthy’s husband Ben Falcone, who also helmed “Tammy,” this uneven but occasionally riotous comedy is a step forward from that road-trip slog.
Decked out in skyscraper-high turtlenecks and a Trump-orange wig, the selfish and abrasive Michelle Darnell could be mistaken for a live-action Krusty the Clown. She belittles confidantes, celebrates betrayals of former partners, and interprets an unusually unloved childhood as an excuse to keep any emotional attachment at arm’s length. Down but not out after a few months in a minimum-security prison, Darnell ends up bunking with Claire (Bell), now a single mom raising a quiet and keen-witted pre-teen, Rachel (Ella Anderson).
The film’s first act is its greatest trial, an awkward combination of pratfalls and character setup as the plot outline takes shape. In different hands, this could be a fine-toothed character comedy, but “The Boss” is cast from rougher stuff. One of the biggest early laughs comes from a guy hit in the throat by a tennis ball — it’s basically “Man Getting Hit By Football,” but the timing and performance are properly vicious.
The film is at its best when it uncorks its id to go full-throttle into violence and pure strangeness based in common problems, throwing the punches we always hold back. Darnell’s new business plan involves “Darnell Darlings,” a brownie-peddling youth group dressed in outfits that would pass muster at a late-’60s communist rally or in dress rehearsals for “The Warriors.” When a street fight erupts between that group and a rival, the street is marked by smoke and fire, and members of both groups throw down WWE-ready moves.
We’ve seen this sort of “real conflict pushed into cartoonish territory” approach before, in films like Paul Feig‘s far superior “Spy,” and Adam McKay‘s “Anchorman.” (This movie hails from McKay’s production company Gary Sanchez.) That doesn’t diminish the comic effect of a scorched-earth battle between what amounts to two Girl Scout groups, especially when shot with an eye for the absurd. Unfortunately, much of “The Boss” isn’t even so dubiously inspired, and at times raw verbal comedy gives way to not-terribly-witty volleys of “fuck you” between Darnell and whoever is in her way.
McCarthy has a great knack for vicious verbiage, and in combination with her supreme physical control, there’s pleasure in seeing Darnell tear an opponent to shreds, even (or especially) when she’s in the wrong. McCarthy has crafted a supremely unlikable character, but this mogul is able to sidestep all filters and social boundaries. We rarely get to be as unreservedly nasty as Darnell. She says all the stuff we fantasize about throwing down to win an argument, but she does it in the heat of the moment, rather than thinking of the perfect comeback in the car on the way home. Watching her at work gives a vicarious thrill. It’s like Ash says of the xenomorph in “Alien“: “I admire it’s purity.”
But McCarthy isn’t playing a relentless killing machine, even in a metaphorical business sense. The film builds to the “come to Jesus” moment mandated by this formula, feelings restraining that formerly free-range ferocity. Inspiration fails when shooting those scenes, where Kristen Bell’s game straight-woman act is forced to take center stage, and the energy bleeds out. This is a story where the serious character beats are bridges to more eccentric comic riffs; few of the dramatic moments can really fly on their own.
That’s fine, really, as no one anywhere is likely to watch “The Boss” expecting significant drama. After all, McCarthy’s character rides into the opening scene on a giant phoenix like Ozzy Osbourne taking the stage in 1986. That opening set piece, which also features McCarthy dancing and rapping a riff on DJ Khaled‘s “All I Do Is Win” before T-Pain joins her on stage, is precisely the sort of kooky absurdity the film does well.
Peter Dinklage provides a key assist as doe-eyed Mugatu-style villain Renault, née Robert. He hams it up alongside Timothy Simons, as Renault’s Boy Friday Stephan, and he’s got the ideal gleam in his eye to sell the climactic conflict between Renault and Darnell. Kathy Bates is terrific in a minor appearance as Darnell’s mentor, and Tyler Labine pays his way as Bell’s love interest, though carving out comic territory opposite McCarthy looks like no easy task.
“The Boss” aims to swim in the same current as Paul Feig and Adam McKay comedies, and at its best envisions crazed sequences that explode familiar conflicts into wild fantasies. Melissa McCarthy is more than capable of bridging that over-the-top material with effective character work, but here the script and direction never match her efforts, leaving her to shoulder more than even a dominant biz tycoon can master. [C+]