Melissa McCarthy is hilarious in every scene of “The Boss,” but the movie rarely keeps up with her. An embellished, gender-switched variation on Donald Trump, avaricious celebrity businesswoman Michelle Darnell is unquestionably the most outlandish creation yet from one of the funniest popular entertainers working today. But McCarthy and her husband Ben Falcone, who directed “The Boss” and co-wrote it with his wife, struggle to develop enough material to complement her slapstick abilities. She’s a great joke in search of a punchline.
“The Boss” suffers from the opposite problem of the couple’s previous collaboration, “Tammy,” which attempted a more delicate blend of melancholy and humor — and wound up lost between the two. With “The Boss,” McCarthy aims for farce, and nails it, even when the story falls short of supporting her efforts. One-upping her bumbling crusader in “Spy,” she unleashes a terrific anti-hero: The prologue reveals the countless foster homes that rejected Michelle over the years before unveiling the monstrous result — a wealthy, take-no-prisoners dealmaker who relishes the spotlight and shoots down her competition.
Rapping to a stadium of fans before beaming in a sea of falling dollars, she boasts of boundless capabilities (“I paid Destiny’s Child to reunite just so I could watch them break up again at my house”) and announces that she’s the forty-seventh wealthiest woman in America. For a while, her caricature makes for an endearing buffoon, whose triumphant attitude has an air of naughty satisfaction to it.
As a de facto statement on the surge of popularity behind the Trump presidential campaign, the thrust of the comedy cuts deep. Michelle’s cocky demeanor carries into banter with her despondent assistant, single mom Claire (Kristen Bell, essentially playing the straight man), whose demands for a raise yield little more than cheeky condescension. A near-brilliant early bit finds Michelle using a mouth prop, while Claire attempts to clean her teeth, and winds up getting heckled by her boss in a mangled series of crude remarks. It’s the kind of first-rate physical comedy that would have worked equally well in the silent days.
If “The Boss” mainly just showcased its title’s character’s ruthless ability to get away with her arrogance, McCarthy and Falcone might be on to something. Instead, it heads into Frank Capra territory with a familiar twist: This is the kind of movie where a mean-spirited scrooge must develop her altruism. Michelle’s lesson starts when she’s tossed in jail for insider trading after her former flame — and ruthless competitor — Renault (Peter Dinklage, amusingly smarmy if one-note) tips off the SEC. Five months later, Michelle’s released, bankrupt and the subject of ridicule across town. Ultimately crashing with her former aide and assisting her middle school daughter (Ella Anderson) to launch a domineering girl scout cookie empire, Michelle aims to get her entrepreneurial groove on by introducing a team of pre-prepubescent girls to the joys of crushing your competition.
At times, Falcone hits on inspired images to complement the movie’s absurd vision of capitalist lunacy through a feminist lens. A violent showdown with the rival cookie sellers erupts into fiery madness as the uniformed women traipse through the mayhem in slo-mo; Michelle’s crafty sales pitch to the girls is amusingly well-timed. Toss in a supporting role for Kathy Bates as Michelle’s devious horseback-riding mentor and “The Boss” has plenty of wickedly funny material in its toy chest.
So why does it shift gears, in a middling third act, to a meandering heist subplot and a rooftop showdown involving samurai swords? Such crude randomness may be typical of the Will Ferrell-backed Gary Sanchez Productions (which produced “Daddy’s Home” last year), but does a disservice to material that clearly has something more to offer — in this case, the most subversive mainstream figure in American comedy, whose gender, body type and rambunctious attitude come closer to challenging traditional movie heroes than anything else produced on this scale. There’s no question that McCarthy provides an essential contrast to safer bets, but she has yet to uncover material as brashly challenging as her screen presence.
Then again, even when “The Boss” doesn’t hold together, it maintains an effective critical gaze. As with Trump, Michelle is a woman so proud of her competitive instincts that she’s unable to comprehend her flaws until they eviscerate her reputation — which only strengthens her resolve. That attribute also drives “The Boss,” a movie crammed with underwhelming gags that keep crowding out the talent at their center.
“The Boss” opens nationwide on Friday.