With every new mainstream comedy that hits theaters, I always experience a slight tinge of critical dissonance. The nature of the modern comedic movie is such that plot exists as an afterthought, haphazardly weaved together to support whatever current star the movie in question is serving as a vehicle for. Things like narrative cohesion and sense are often disregarded entirely as screenwriters do whatever they can to advance from one scene to the next. To a degree this makes sense; since much of modern cinematic comedy culls from the world of sketch comedy, that movies would feel like a series of interconnected skits—as opposed to a singular work—is understandable, if not somewhat forgivable.
In this regard, perhaps I ask too much of comedies when I ask that they tell a decent story in the midst of all the jokes and shenanigans. As a result, I’m often left with an intense dissatisfaction after every screening of every comedy. Even movies that make me laugh leave me with a sort of unfulfilled desire. Jokes are well and good—that is, after all, the point of the comedy movie—but memorability should be considered. Narrative should be unique. I shouldn’t be able to tell you what happens before I even sit down to see the movie. But I guess that’s the way of the world now.
That’s certainly the way of The Boss, the latest vehicle for comedienne Melissa McCarthy. Your appreciation for the movie is directly proportionate to your tolerance for thin plots and narrative predictability. While there are moments of hilarity peppered here and there throughout the blessedly short runtime, it’s never enough to carry the work as a whole. At best, there is enough decent material for two or three sketches of solid comedy, with the rest being thrown in to pad both the time and narrative in order to give the illusion of being an actual film.
McCarthy stars as Michelle Darnell, a sort of foul-mouthed Martha Stewart character who rules a vast financial empire with the help of her faithful assistant Claire (Kristen Bell). When rival Renault (Peter Dinklage) produces evidence of insider trading, Michelle is sentenced to half a year in jail. That short time is enough for her empire to crumble, leaving her starting from the bottom once again. With the help of Claire and her daughter Rachel (Ella Anderson), Michelle must figure out a way to get back to the top.
The Boss works best when McCarthy is left to her own devices. She vamps around the scenery like a latter day Lucille Bluth, doling out dubious life advice from her perch of negativity. There are more than a few genuinely funny moments that come from McCarthy’s Michelle, whose crass behavior belies her public persona as a take-no-prisoners, always-in-control, head bitch in charge. But the movie quickly descends into the depths of formless comedy, where situation matters more than character and the limits of disbelief are suspended to absurd lengths.
The script, written by McCarthy, husband Ben Falcone (who also directs), and Steve Mallory never attempts to be anything other than an exercise in base humor designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Its humor is predicated on the idea that stuffy old white women and young children saying the word “fuck” is the be all end all of comedy, and its plot is thick enough only to carry this idea through 90 minutes of predictability and situational comedy.
It’s really just another riff on the kind of silly and forgettable comedy that runs rampant from Hollywood these days. The formula is familiar and the jokes are unmemorable, even though they do land with more frequency than you might initially expect. You’ll find yourself laughing out loud but then, minutes later, you’ll forget not only why you laughed but, in some instances, that you even laughed at all.
McCarthy’s Michelle is a character with miles of potential that never quite gets explored. As a recurring character in a sketch-com, Michelle could easily become a popular, cheer invoking staple that audiences long to see. Here, she’s just a sketch, with little beyond the vaguest notions filled in for effect. This is disappointing. There was a real opportunity here to lampoon the ideas of class warfare from multiple angles with Michelle serving as a stand in for the perceived attitudes of the one percent. Instead, the humor is dumbed down and washed out. Bell is competent enough as McCarthy’s straight man, though the torrents of abuse levied at her by her boss turned partner wears thin after a time. With every new betrayal of trust that she endures, sympathy for the character gets lower and lower until it’s difficult for the audience to care about her anymore.
Not even Dinklage, who seems to have fully embraced a give-no-fucks attitude in his career outside Game of Thrones, saves the movie with his bushido warrior business man/ex-lover of Michelle, Renault. God bless him, though. He gives every role his all, no matter how absurd or ridiculous the character, or the movie that contains him, ever gets.
The Boss might have some appeal with certain audiences, though a classic it will never be. The laughs are cheap and unmemorable, but it kills the time well enough, I suppose. In that way it is a symptom of the modern era of comedic movies. Who needs meaning or effort when you can see a stuck up white woman call another, even more stuck up white woman a bitch, am I right? I’m truly afraid that I might be. If that sounds appealing to you, then The Boss is right up your alley. Me? I guess I’ll just dig in my heels and keep hoping for something more.
The Boss is now playing in theaters everwhere.