Directors: Ben Falcone
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Bell, Ella Anderson, Peter Dinklage, Tyler Labine
Directors of comedies don’t tend to get the same credit that they do in other genres. Our attention understandably tends to focus on the comedic performer. But one can’t help but walk away from Melissa McCarthy’s latest star vehicle, The Boss, with an appreciation of the skills of Paul Feig. Feig has consistently got the best out of McCarthy in Bridesmaids, The Heat and Spy. The Boss, however, he had nothing to do with. Instead, McCarthy’s co-writer and director here is her husband, Ben Falcone, with whom she made the poorly received Tammy. While she can’t help but get laughs, the film feels a bit like when a great front man from a rock band goes off and does a solo album. It is not quite the same and not nearly as good.
McCarthy plays Michelle Darnell, the 47th wealthiest woman in America, the CEO of seven Fortune 500 companies and a bestselling author of financial advice books. She is a ruthless businesswoman, hardened by a childhood defined by rejection as foster family after foster family returned her to the orphanage. But when rival in commerce and former lover Renault (Peter Dinklage) has her arrested for insider trading and sentenced to five months in prison – albeit the incredibly wealthy person’s version of prison – Michelle finds herself with nothing. Alone and homeless, she turns to her former personal assistant, Claire (Kristen Bell), who reluctantly agrees to let her live with her and her daughter, Rachel (Ella Anderson) in their small apartment.
It is a pretty tried and tested story arc: the mighty brought low then having to build themselves up again, to re-earn, or perhaps earn for the first time, their position of power, and in the process learn important life lessons and an appreciation for the people around them. Michelle finds the ticket to her redemption when taking Rachel to her weekly Dandelions meeting, and founds her own rival youth organization, ‘Darnell’s Darlings,’ building her empire on Claire’s homemade brownies.
McCarthy created the character of Michelle Darnell fifteen years ago when she was performing with the famous improv troupe The Groundlings. As a result Michelle feels like a sketch character, not a film character. Placed in a thinly sketched narrative, she isn’t fully fleshed out. We don’t know what it actually is that she does. We don’t know how she has been successful despite her obvious flaws. The details are lacking. None the less, McCarthy clearly knows this character well and she knows what is funny about her. As such she gets most, if not all, of the films genuine laughs.
The Boss gives McCarthy the chance to do what she does best, she specializes in playing characters with indestructible self-belief, but she is doing it in a context that doesn’t take full advantage of her skills. McCarthy is a great ensemble performer. Melissa plays well with others. But here she primarily plays opposite Kristen Bell and Peter Dinklage, neither of whom she has a strong chemistry with. As single mother and longsuffering personal assistant Claire, Bell is largely charged with playing it straight and grounding the larger than life Michelle in some sort of reality. Dinklage’s Renault, on the other hand, is entirely ridiculous as a jealous CEO who models himself on the samurai, and this type of comedy does not appear to be in the Game of Thrones star’s wheel house. The best scenes, where McCarthy has a worthy sparring partner, are her confrontations with Annie Mumolo (co-writer of Bridesmaids) who plays an uptight mother of one of the Dandelions who objects to the presence of a convicted felon at one of their meetings.
The fall and rise narrative is simple but does the job, providing a frame for the intermittent humour which comes largely from basic slapstick and pratfalls and the shock value of swearing in front of children. But then it is cast aside in the third act for an absurd climax involving a heist and a swordfight atop a skyscraper between McCarthy and Dinklage.
Melissa McCarthy is a brilliant comedic actress, a genius at what she does, and if not for her The Boss would have nothing going for it. But the unpredictable shifts in tone that make it feel more like a series of sketches than a unified film suggest that her skills as a writer are not yet at the level of her instincts as a performer.
Review by Duncan McLean
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