Who’s The Boss?

The Melissa McCarthy vehicle is the latest comedy to fall victim to the pitfall of the pratfall.

Melissa McCarthy and co. in The Boss (Universal Pictures)

Let it be stipulated: Melissa McCarthy is a national treasure. In Gilmore Girls, she found a way to make Sookie, the show’s “ditzy chef,” warm rather than cartoonish. In Mike & Molly, she proves that “relatability” can also be clever and wry. In Bridesmaids, she showed off her mettle with physical comedy. In Spy, she proved her deftness with an insult—not to mention a handgun. McCarthy has radiated by turns subtle sweetness and foul-mouthed charisma. She has effortlessly channeled the everywoman. She has done it all charmingly, and seemingly effortlessly, and quite often hilariously. Like I said: national treasure.

The latest McCarthy vehicle, The Boss, has revealed another McCarthy talent: the ability to rock a spiky mullet, as well as a series of outfits in the style of “Bedazzled Chico’s,” in a way that manages to be as dignified as it is absurd. McCarthy plays Michelle Darnell, a self-made tycoon—think Suze Orman meets Martha Stewart meets Tony Robbins meets Tony Wonder—who, as the “47th richest person in America,” is on top of the world … until a rival gets her busted for insider trading. She’s hauled off to minimum-security prison, Stewart-style, for a few months—only to discover, upon her release, that the SEC has repossessed her assets and frozen her accounts. Newly penniless, if not newly humbled, she shows up at the Chicago apartment of her former assistant, Claire (Kristen Bell), and Claire’s tween daughter, Rachel (Ella Anderson), and the two reluctantly take her in.

Michelle takes Rachel to a meeting of her Dandelion (think Girl Scout) troop, where she learns, to her horror, that the girls are regularly selling cookies—at high markups, too!—without directly profiting from the effort. Michelle, after happening to sample one of Claire’s “family recipe” brownies, starts a spin-off business, Darnell’s Darlings, recruiting her sellers from the ranks of the Dandelions—the sales are door-to-door, but this time it’s brownies serving as the capitalistic baked good. Michelle founds the new group for the same reason she does anything, and everything, else: to make money.

This is all, its weird specificity not withstanding, a promising premise for a wacky comedy: a little bit Troop Beverly Hills, a little bit Bad News Bears, a little bit—via a balletically violent street fight between the Dandelions and the Darlings, whose uniforms channel Che Guevara but whose motivations channel Donald Trump—Reservoir Dogs. But it’s a lot to balance. And The Boss, for all the star-power the film has behind it—indeed, for all the Melissa McCarthy it has behind it—can’t seem to decide what kind of movie it is. Or even what kind of comedy it is. Is it bringing heart to slapstick, the way those other McCarthy vehicles, Spy and The Heat, did so effectively? Is it bringing slapstick to heart, à la Bridesmaids? It’s unclear. Instead, The Boss is a whiplash-inducing muddle, pratfalling one moment and heartstring-ing the next.

The only thing that is very, very clear: The movie revels in its R rating. It takes gleeful, snickering, often sneering pleasure in its ability to swear and otherwise be-potty its mouth. Michelle’s former mentor, Ida (Kathy Bates, excellent but also sadly underused here), refers to Michelle as “a businesswoman, a visionary, a leader” and also “a cocksucker” and “a professional fuckface.” Michelle at one point hisses to an adversary, “You’re a real B-I-T-C-U-N-T.” She announces to Claire, “I’m going to give you a raise so big you’ll cream your jeans and shat your chaps.” There is much more in this vein, but you get the idea.

The movie also takes childish delight in swear-saying of a more figurative variety. Michelle and the guy who sold her out to the SEC, Renault (Peter Dinklage), used to date; we get lots of scenes of them acting on their continued attraction to each other—scenes supposed to be hilarious, apparently, because of the differing proportions of the actors involved. One of The Boss’s other long, drawn-out gags finds Michelle and Claire feeling (and squeezing, and slapping) each others’ breasts—the point of the whole exercise seeming to be the excuse for Michelle to explain to Rachel, when the girl inevitably walks in on them, “We were jostling each other’s bosoms.” There are also jokes about vaginal rejuvenation, and the self-tanning of the crotch, and … well, again, you get the idea. And there is, overall, a toss-it-to-see-what-sticks tone to the proceedings. (At one point, indeed, via an unruly sleeper couch, the film literally throws McCarthy up against a wall—one of its few non-predictable gags, maybe, but one, too, that treats its star like so much human spaghetti.)

Another spaghetti element: the many, many clichés The Boss relies on for its LOLs. The girls are selling brownies! Think they’ll set up a stand in front of a weed dispensary? Will a mention of Michelle and Renault dating in the ’80s obligatorily flash back to the pair sporting shoulder-padded suits and Flock of Seagulls-esque hairdos? Will Michelle, while babysitting Rachel, decide that the two should watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre together? Yes. And yes, and yes. Will the film have a lot of fun at the expense of a bitchy, wealthy suburban mom? Will there be jokes about tennis lessons at Michelle’s minimum-security prison? Will Michelle, an orphan, have intimacy issues? Will the movie make those issues clear by having her repeat a version of the line “families are for suckers” approximately 15 times? Will The Boss try to excuse its own reliance on tired tropes by having Claire inform Michelle, “You’re such a cliché: You’re getting close to people, so then you have to push them away”? Yes. And yes. And yes. And yes. And yes.

The Boss was written by McCarthy and her husband, Ben Falcone (he directed it, as well), and it gives an additional screenwriting credit to Steve Mallory, who also collaborated with the pair on Identity Thief and, less successfully, Tammy. The trio are friends from their Groundlings days; Michelle Darnell is a character who was born in the improv theater. Which makes The Boss, perhaps, a case study in the many bad things that can happen when improv-ers fashion themselves as screenwriters: You get a few moments of very funny set pieces—and many more slightly funny ones—that are all strung together, awkwardly and discordantly. You get characters who, being designed not really as full people, but rather as animate vehicles for lines like “I dinged my pelvis again!,” never get fleshed out. You get motivations—minds changed, hearts opened, vendettas erased, inexplicably but always conveniently—that don’t make much human sense.

The broad arc of the movie—that thing sometimes referred to as “the story,” sometimes also as “the point”—exists, it seems, only to get us from one pratfall to another. The seams show. Or, they would if there were any seams at all. Instead, the scenes here are glued and taped and safety-pinned, sloppily. The Boss is sketch comedy, with none of the lines colored in.

In that, it certainly isn’t the only recent film to fall victim to sketch’s sketchiness. Given the massive revolving door that’s been built between the studios and the SNL stage and the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, the remarkable thing is how many comedies have managed to escape it. What makes The Boss especially disappointing, though—really disappointing, in the manner of the kid who’d do so well if he’d only apply himself—is how much potential it had to be awesome. One of the other things McCarthy is great at is managing to get comedy out of the smallest, subtlest moments (see, in The Boss, Michelle’s awed, earnest, perfectly delivered, what-is-this-foreign-foodstuff assessment of the “Doh-REE-toh”). And The Boss, to its credit, repeatedly confirms what Spy suggested: There is, at this point, no one better at delivering a cinematic insult than its star. “You’re dressed like someone who grocery shops at CVS,” Michelle informs Claire, and the line is elegant and cutting and glorious.

But many of her insults are aimed not at Claire, but at the young girls who are loyal Dandelions. We are meant to understand that these girls are terrible, and thus that they deserve to be terrorized by a middle-aged woman former tycoon; in its haste to get to the next pratfall, though, the movie never really establishes their badness. “You’re such a loser,” one of them mutters at Michelle, after she’s taken over a Dandelion meeting and mocked the organization’s entire purpose; this is about the extent of it, though. In response, Michelle spends the rest of the movie referring to the tween girl as a boy, and informing her about her future lesbianism—news to the girl, it seems—and otherwise bullying her. The treatment extends to the girl’s mother, the requisite bitchy suburbanite, whom Michelle, at one point, tackles on a street, in order to gleefully grind some Dandelion cookies into some awkward places.

These are not proportional responses. Just as it is not a proportional response when Michelle, given bad news by her lawyer, beans him in the face with a tennis ball.

That wouldn’t matter; comedy needn’t be realistic. But they contribute to the tonal flaws of the film, and they also reveal, in their way, something bigger: the weird, mostly unwarranted delight The Boss takes in its own meanness. Michelle, the star of the movie, is a jerk, and that’s fine; the trouble is that we are meant to find the movie’s manifestations of her jerkiness—insulting young girls, punching their mothers, etc., etc.—to be funny. Had The Boss been better executed, they might well have been. But there’s a fine line between being a boss and being a bully, and the movie regularly crosses it. And then, for good measure, it falls down some stairs.