In only a few years, comedian and actor Melissa McCarthy has established herself as a comedy superstar. And justifiably so - her impeccable comic timing and imagination, combined with with genuine talent as a performer and a keen awareness of social commentary, make any project she touches of immediate interest. Her latest film, ‘The Boss’ (which she also co-wrote) is built from one of her early characters, and there’s no doubt McCarthy is in her element every step of the way. However, her presence in a film doesn’t seem to be as safe a bet as you’d assume.
Michelle Darnell (McCarthy) was once one of the richest women in America until she was dobbed in for insider trading by her rival an former lover Renault (Peter Dinklage). Now free from prison, the only person she can turn to is her old assistant Claire (Kristen Bell) and her daughter Rachel (Ella Anderson). With nothing to occupy herself, Michelle turns her sights to Rachel’s Dandelions scout group and their cookie-selling business, deciding to turn the kitsch tradition into a powerful industry.
I have to admit, my expectations weren’t high for ‘The Boss’ based on its trailer, but I hoped that McCarthy would elevate the material and give it purpose. Surprisingly, she almost does just that, spinning the film into a comment about the empowerment of young women and the importance of family. The narrative is driven by women, both young and old, the men relegated to either supporting love interests or absurd villains, and for the most part this is wonderfully refreshing. ‘The Boss’ stumbles in its first act, but once it settles into Michelle’s plan to take Claire’s secret brownie recipe and set up her Dandelions competitors, the Darnell Darlings, it settles into a charming film with terrific character dynamics, particularly between Michelle, Claire and Rachel.
However, the comedy in ‘The Boss’ suffers in the end from not knowing when too far is too far, not in terms of content but in terms of length. In the wake of the success of ‘Bridesmaids’, too many films have tried to imitate its unusual rhythm of comedy, and ‘The Boss’ spends far too much time on gags to the point that they lose energy and humour. It’s also about as basic filmmaking as you can get from director Ben Falcone, who (apart from one wonderfully silly sequence where the Darlings and the Dandelions rumble in the street) offers very little technically that adds to the film. It just can’t shake the fact that it’s basically a carbon-copy stylistically of ‘Bridesmaids’, and recent comedies like ‘Spy’ and ‘Sisters’ proved that this doesn’t need to always be the case.
Matters get worse in the third act. Conflict develops between Michelle and Claire, but instead of taking the chance to make something heartfelt and potent, it descends into a silly heist film and battle with Renault that seems to have wandered in from another film. Whatever clarity of intent the film had developed or any genuine emotional weight it had earned falls away, and all you’re left with is an uninspiring mess that stumbles towards a lazy ending.
The comedy in ‘The Boss’ suffers in the end from not knowing when too far is too far.
Of course Melissa McCarthy is wonderful, even though the film indulges her worst excesses. She approaches the role of Michelle though with surprising integrity, and rather than a series of gags she comes across as a well-rounded character. She walks the line expertly between endearing and infuriating, and in the best possible way. Kristen Bell is a perfect complement to McCarthy, a strong and relatable centre to Michelle’s excess. Their on-screen chemistry is terrific, especially when combined with Ella Anderson as the loveable and genuine Rachel. Without this central team, the film simply wouldn’t work, all three carrying the narrative and the heart of ‘The Boss’. The adult supporting cast aren’t as disciplined, almost everyone painfully overacting and taking their characters way too far (Dinklage is obviously having fun, but Renault is just way too ridiculous), but the kids in the cast are all having a blast and that goes a long way.
There’s far more going on in ‘The Boss’ than I was expecting, but that just makes its failings all the more disappointing. It has genuine comment to make about female empowerment and inspiring young women, but it all gets lost in comedy excess and overkill. Fans of Melissa McCarthy will probably get a kick out of it, and along with Kristen Bell, she’s definitely the best thing about it, but in the wake of great comedies like ‘Spy’ and ‘Sisters’, it feels about three or four years out of date.