Melissa McCarthy’s Skills Can’t Save This Unfunny Mess
“Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” It’s one of those untraceable quotes, attributed variously to everyone from the 19th c. Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean to film actor Edmund Gwenn (best known as Kris Kringle in 1947’s Miracle on 34thStreet). Whoever said it first, I don’t know if I can agree with them about dying – I haven’t been there yet – but I think they nailed the last part. Comedy may look easy, but that’s an illusion. The good stuff takes tremendous skill. And that, alas, is why there are so many unfunny comedies made each year. The Boss is one of them, and that is a real disappointment for Melissa McCarthy fans. McCarthy is a gifted comedian and her last leading role was in Spy, one of my favorite comedies of 2015. This is a step backwards for her. The fault lies not in McCarthy’s performance: she is 100% committed to the material, as always. But that material and how it’s handled by the writer/director Ben Falcone is subpar.
Michelle Darnell (McCarthy) is a business mogul and motivational speaker, worshiped by audiences and slavishly doted on by her employees. The motivational rally that opens the movie has a certain Trumpesque quality to it, and the movie might have had some fun slyly poking fun at the Trump phenomenon. But The Boss wastes that opportunity (not the only missed opportunity in this film). After a five month stint in prison for insider trading Darnell finds herself homeless and bankrupt, and crashing on a sleeper sofa in her former assistant’s apartment. The assistant, Claire (Kristen Bell), is a single mother now working in a tedious office job. Claire is reluctant to provide shelter to Michelle, but is persuaded by her young daughter, Rachel (Ella Anderson). A bond forms between Rachel and Michelle, who usually takes pride in her lack of emotional entanglements. Rachel also provides a new life plan for Michelle. After taking Rachel to a meeting of her Dandelion troop (the film’s stand in for the Girl Scouts) and learning how much money is being made on cookie sales, Michelle hatches a plan to form her own girls’ troop (Darnell’s Darlings) and sell bags of Claire’s amazing brownies.
That’s the gist of it, although Michelle’s nemesis and former lover, Renault (Peter Dinklage) will complicate the new business’s success, and the human feelings that Claire and Rachel stir up in Michelle will freak her out. Of course, by the time the credits roll all will be well and all will be well, but very little will be funny (apologies to Julian of Norwich).
The plot is spectacularly implausible, but that’s not really a problem in a broad comedy. What is a problem is a comedy that doesn’t produce laughs.
I have a couple of specific critiques of what Ben Falcone (McCarthy’s husband) has done in The Boss. Firstly, the movie relies heavily on profanity and shock talk. This is what I mean about comedy being hard: it appears that some filmmakers are just throwing basic ingredients together (foul language, blows to the crotch, homophobic jokes, etc.), assuming that the resulting product will be an R-rate laugh riot. That’s not how it works. I am aware that profanity can be used to comic effect, but just dropping the f-bomb is not, in and of itself, a joke. Having Michelle and an uptight Dandelions mom stand nose to nose and verbally assault each other with the f-bomb is just barely a joke. Just barely. The same applies to raunchy sex talk. Yes, it can be funny. There’s a reason that humans have been joking about sex since our ancestors left their caves and held their first open mic night. But simply having characters on screen shout back and forth about oral sex is not funny. Even the Neanderthals would have thought that was a cheap gag.
Secondly, Falcone doesn’t know when to quit. There were times in The Boss when the comedy was working, when a joke was successfully traversing the tightrope, and then….it went too far. It’s as if, at certain points, Falcone leaned into the audience, elbowed us hard in the ribs and yelled, “Get it?” right in our faces. Examples abound, but let me share just one. There is a ridiculous street fight between the Dandelions and Darnell’s Darlings, but at the end of the scene a wagon of cookies rolls across the screen, on fire. It’s a funny visual gag and works just fine on its own. But then Michelle sees the wagon and shouts “That batch is burnt!” and the lame joke actually makes the burning cookies less funny. Don’t oversell it, Ben. It’s the little things.
The Boss is not completely without merit. As I said, McCarthy does the best she can and in particular makes the physical comedy work. There’s one scene, in which Michelle is critiquing the bra Claire is about to wear on a date, that is very funny. Like a much more graphic joke about tampons in last summer’s Trainwreck, the bra bit comes from a distinctly female perspective and works because it’s rooted in truth. But then Falcone elbows us in the ribs again by having Claire and Michelle wrap up the scene aimlessly slapping at each other’s breasts.
The Boss ends with one of those blooper reels over the credits: you know, the sort where the actors keep bursting into laughter while trying to deliver their lines. There’s something sad about a movie ending this way. It’s as if The Boss is making one last, desperate plea to convince us that it’s much funnier than it really is. “Look! We even crack ourselves up!” The blooper reel certainly looks as if the cast had fun on set, and I hope they did. But theater audiences watching this movie are going to have a lot less reason to laugh.