This review was originally published in Nathaniel's column at Towleroad
Melissa McCarthy cuts an imposing figure in her first scene in The Boss and I’m not talking about her plus size physique though we’ll get there in a minute. In the new comedy she’s Michelle Darnell, a mega-successful businesswoman (details are fuzzy on what kind) descending into a stadium on a giant faux phoenix that’s shooting off fireworks. The sound mix is as uniformly deafening as that image is unsubtle so you can’t make out a single word of the rapping, mob chanting, pandemonium that follows. This should be annoying but it comes as a weird relief in this relentlessly politicking season of pandering narcissistic windbags wearing saggy human costumes on TV every night. It’s better to close your ears and laugh at the inanity of the spectacle than really contemplate what they’re saying and what their cults are cheering about; that way lies nihilistic depression about the state of the world and we’re here to laugh, damnit, this being a Melissa McCarthy movie. (In short: I was in the right mood to see this movie. And that often matters with comedy.)
Shortly after that insane entrance, which presents Darnell as a Susan Powter style self-help guru (for economics), the movie recasts her as a less specific cutthroat executive who buys and sells companies in the blink of an eye — and buys and sells out people with equally swift mercilessness. [More...]
We’re introduced to three of her colleagues / victims in the breakneck world-building of the movie’s kick-off: Peter Dinklage, of Game of Thrones fame, is the delightfully affected Renauld (“Ronald” to Darnell) her former lover and still rival; the game Kathy Bates is Darnell’s look-alike mentor Ida Marquette; and finally there’s Kristen Bell, playing the straight man (non-sexual orientation definition) to all these comic bananas. She’s the underpaid and undervalued executive assistant Claire.
May be back track a little? The phrase “world building” is too generously applied. The opening sequences are more of a hastily constructed joke platform than an immersion into a fully thought out world. This is broad comedy at its broadest in other words. Michelle Darnell is not a specific career woman but Business Woman (all caps intended) and this is not a capitalist satire but a Comedy that happens to have a few business gags. As soon as the “world” we’ve described is constructed it’s torn down again as The Boss in question is convicted of insider trading (a good excuse for Martha Stewart jokes) and this once mighty woman hits rock bottom i.e. her assistant Claire’s couch… which gets it’s own not particularly funny joke.
Darnell has to rebuild and she does this by founding “Darnell’s Darlings” a for profit rip-off of the Girl Scouts. We knew that the Faux Phoenix from the opening would have to acquire meaning somehow. Darnell amusingly refers to it as her “totem animal” but it’s really more of a Handy Plot Symbol for the movie’s basic bitch trajectory: Business Woman Grows a New Big Business (with heart this time), Gains Soul in Process.
While The Boss may be basic and even slight in its construction and character work, everyone knows that plot is merely the jumpstart for the parade of physical (slapstick), verbal (usually profane), and visual (new wigs!) gags that McCarthy’s star vehicles thrive on. The results are, shall we say, uneven so be in the right mood for it if you’re going.
On the negative side let’s just say that it would be so nice if modern comic star vehicles like this one relied less on the inherent funniness of their leads and wrote them actual jokes (see also Tina Fey & Amy Poehler movies) and some arguably homo/transphobic disses of Darnell’s enemies don’t land all that well. Meanwhile, though Kathy Bates has a great character and funny opening scene the movie drops the ball big time on the character.
On the plus side, The Boss is just the right length (99 minutes is more than enough for a comedy and so few comedies know that, opting for 2+ hours!) and the laughs come at a fairly steady stream. McCarthy continues to have great chemistry with co-stars (even though she’s showboating) and she makes even the easiest and most predictable jokes about white collar crime and personal narcissism sing. Against the odds two truly blue lengthy jokes about Bell’s boobs and Bell’s boyfriend deployed for “dick-sucking” (long story) end up being quite funny. Finally the branding jokes about Darnell’s Darlings are inspired. It’s tough to know how to react to the Looney Tunes violence of the street fight with the Brownies but on some demented level it’s an anarchic wonder — I mean, which studio executive approved this and were they sweating profusely when they did?
The much hated film critic Rex Reed once infamously called Melissa McCarthy a “hippo” in his review of Identity Thief, but one of the subversive joys of her recent films is how gleefully she both owns up to and exploits her unusual (for the movies) physicality, and makes it sex-positive too. Whether she’s playing a slovenly mess like Tammy, the straight talking/dog-loving Megan in Bridesmaids, or the foul mouthed cop in The Heat she nearly always presents her characters as matter-of-factly sexually confident and desirable. Even when they don’t see themselves that way, as with her more atypical mousy Susan Cooper in Spy, the men still want in on her action. So here’s to McCarthy for refusing to conform to Hollywood’s rigid ideals, and making such a success of herself in the process. Michelle Darnell may be the titular Boss but Melissa McCarthy continues to call her own shots.
Oscar Chances: No, but it's fun to think about contemporary dramas or comedies getting some respect in Costume Design and Wendy Chuck (Spotlight, Sideways), who rarely gets an opportuntity to go so big with her characters, has a lot of fun in the process.