Lukewarm Takes #17: The Boss
I always thought that The Boss, Melissa McCarthy’s little-loved comedy about an arrogant, belligerent self-made financial maven who must rebuild her life after going to prison in a Martha Stewart-like insider trading scandal, had a terrific premise despite the lukewarm reception it received. I’m fascinated by disgrace and the long shadow it casts over the lives of people in its grips, so as you might imagine, this year’s parade of public disgraces has filled me with profoundly mixed emotions.
At the very least, I imagined the very public, very dramatic fall of Harvey Weinstein would cast The Boss in a more timely, provocative light, as few figures in American history have fallen as fast, or dramatically, or as publicly, as Weinstein has. He went from being a master of the universe to “Brother, can I spare a dime? Oh wait, you came out against me as well. Oh shit” in a New York minute.
In a Big Whoop blog post only a week or two old, I pondered whether Weinstein would suffer real consequences in a world that found both Casey Affleck and Mel Gibson nominated for Academy Awards this year, and Casey Affleck winning, not unlike previous favorites of the Academy like Woody Allen and Roman Polanski.
I’m not sure if you’re familiar with those guys, but they’re all very bad dudes. In his big public statement following the opening avalanche of allegations, Weinstein glibly mapped out a plan for redemption and public rehabilitation: he’d spend a couple of months meditating in teepees and yelling about his mother in primal scream therapy, pick up a psychiatrist or a dozen and then triumphantly use his enormous cultural capital to single-handedly end gun violence and bring down Donald Trump the way Woodward and Bernstein brought down Nixon, but with more Manhattan razzle-dazzle.
Mama Weinstein, whose dying wish was for her son to invoke her constantly if caught raping, terrorizing and harassing dozens of women over a three decade span, would beam down from heaven, proud of her sonny boy, and Weinstein would win yet ANOTHER Oscar, this time for most Woke former degenerate, a sort of “Most Improved” statue for spiritual and moral growth.
It didn’t quite pan out that way. Weinstein wasn’t just punished, he was damn near punted out of civilized society, justifiably so. The dude who seemingly owned the Academy became only the second person ever kicked out, after a monster who brutally and savagely disobeyed its rules regarding screeners. It chills the blood just to think about what that monster did. Doesn't he have ANY respect for copyright law?
In The Boss, Mellissa McCarthy, who also co-wrote and produced with her husband Ben Falcone, plays Michelle Darnell, an enormously wealthy, enormously spoiled, and enormously delusional amalgamation of Martha Stewart, Suze Orman, Nancy Grace and the Tasmanian Devil of roaring dysfunction McCarthy generally plays in her lesser vehicles.
She is, in other words, a character desperately in need of a comeuppance and spiritual redemption. She gets just that when a jealousy-crazed former business partner and lover played by Peter Dinklage gets her sent to jail for insider trading. But before she spends some time in a country club prison, we get a taste of Darnell at her belligerent best.
McCarthy has the physicality, magnetism and presence to fill a stadium. Early in the film, she does just that, putting on a show that’s part Jim Cramer, part Kiss and part Diddy, complete with a climactic cameo from T-Pain singing his hook from the DJ Khaled posse cut “All I Do Is Win.” As Darnell, McCarthy raps Ludacris’ entire verse from the song in an audacious move that quickly becomes tiresome, like so much of the rest of the film.
I probably watched the Unrated version, on account of I was genuinely offended by the film's level of profanity, but The Boss makes a point of continually going too far in a way that’s at once admirable exhausting. I think the movie’s star and co-writer and producer is an extraordinary talent, but I feel like sloppy, shapeless, self-indulgent vehicles like this give me more of her than I can really handle. It becomes an embarrassment of riches from a performer for whom too much always just seems to be the beginning.
McCarthy is admirably, if perversely, committed to being unlikeable, even loathsome. Michelle Darnell isn’t just a little rough around the edges and in need of polishing: she legitimately is a roaring asshole, a deranged narcissist so utterly removed from everyday life on planet Earth for the little people that she might as well be from another planet.
In an opening that establishes a tone wavering uncomfortably between maudlin sentimentality and glib misanthropy, the younger Michelle Darnell was adopted, and then returned, apparently as defective, by numerous unhappy families cursed with agreeing to look after her. There’s an almost Jackie Gleason/Jerry Lewis level of groaning sentimentality to The Boss, and grounding Michelle’s awfulness as a human being in her earlier status as a poor, suffering orfink reeks of old-school shamelessness that’s both ingratiating and irritating.
It is a little weird, however, when the melodramatic things a movie does to establish why you shouldn’t hate a character for being obnoxious reflect your own background. So if you ever wonder why I’m so terrible, it’s because I also grew up in foster care and got the heave-ho from at least one family that was all, “See ya! Wouldn’t wanna be—in the same house as you for one more moment!”
McCarthy is big and brash and funny in these early scenes of Darnell as a world-conquering badass but the movie is in a frightful hurry to hasten her fall and subsequent rise. Before we have time to get settled, Darnell is already out of prison and crashing at the home of Claire Rawlings (Kristen Bell), a former assistant and single mother who has moved on with her life but is unable to fully extricate herself from her forceful and domineering old boss’ clutches.
It’s easy to see what The Boss is doing with Claire. It’s giving the audience someone to relate to, a plucky and hard-working single mother (who of course just happens to look like Kristen Bell) whose relatability is supposed to undercut the abrasiveness and vulgar, profane aggression of McCarthy’s performance.
There are so many different directions the filmmakers could have gone with this premise and these actors. So it’s unfortunate that they chose, “Lumpy, shapeless comedy-drama about a gruff but fundamentally good-hearted outsider finding an unlikely but supportive makeshift family” as their ultimate choice.
Being an orphan who seemingly eschews personal and romantic entanglements in favor of pursuing her professional goals with pathological relentlessness, Darnell has never really had a family, and she ends up fixating on her former assistant and her daughter both personally and professionally.
In a bid to make back her fortune, our anti-hero decides to take on the Girl Scouts’ monopoly on cookies with a miraculous new recipe created by her long-suffering former assistant turned reluctant current business partner. Like Tammy, the last film McCarthy and Falcone co-wrote and Falcone directed, The Boss is a goddamned mess, a kitchen-sink comedy-melodrama full of weird tonal shifts, excessive vulgarity and incongruous earnestness.
Darnell’s investment, financial and otherwise, in her partner’s daughter and her friends temporarily transforms The Boss into a comedy of inter-generational inappropriateness, one of those ribald comedies that derive much of their humor from adults who should know better brazenly swearing around impressionable young people.
I like this kind of comedy for the most part. Water Matthau was a true master, as is Billy Bob Thornton and there’s something transgressively pleasing about seeing McCarthy be everything our culture says a woman is not supposed to be, and do all the things a woman is not supposed to do. But The Boss can’t give us something good without giving it to us in such volumes that it stops being fun and becomes punishing and exhausting.
I respect that McCarthy has a young Bill Murray’s willingness to play characters that are abrasive and unlikable, obnoxious and uncompromising. It worries me that she increasingly seems to have a late-period Bill Murray’s need for an audience’s love and validation. A lot of The Boss is devoted to the star earnestly trying to win over her understandably skeptical and resentful former employee and while Kristen Bell is a likable and engaging performer and McCarthy a fine dramatic actress, the emotional elements of The Boss feel arbitrary and under-developed.
McCarthy is gifted improviser but The Boss feels like the work of people who afforded themselves the luxury of making everything up as they went along. This feels less like a motion picture that was carefully conceived and constructed so much as it was riffed and ad-libbed and improvised into existence. The Boss feels less like a motion picture interested in telling a story than an assemblage of takes and improvisations McCarthy and Falcone were happy with, whether or not they served the story and central narrative or not.
Because McCarthy is such a ferociously talented and engaging performer, some of the ad-libs and improvisation hits but we’re often asked to travel down weird, rambling tangents and digressions to get there. Simply put, The Boss isn’t much of a movie and Falcone, if anything, seems to have gotten even less interested in film as anything other than a sloppy joke-delivery machine than he was the first time around.
McCarthy's innate tendency seems to be to go as big and vulgar and physical as possible. Needless to say, Falcone doesn't seem overly concerned with reigning her in.
The movie’s shambling desperation coalesces in a wobbly, wavering third act that focusses on corporate intrigue as our anti-hero, her sidekick and her sidekick’s love interest conspire to foil the sinister plans of Dinklage’s obsessed corporate raider to take over his ex’s nascent business.
Hey, you know who enjoys corporate intrigue subplots in broad comedies? Nobody, ever. All corporate intrigue subplots ever do is hep run out the clock. Not even the sight of Mellissa McCarthy sword-fighting Peter Dinklage (who is the funniest part of the movie, if I might damn him with faint praise) can redeem this lazy and arbitrary ending.
I’d have a hard time recommending The Boss but I also don’t want to dismiss it. Nobody makes movies like McCarthy and Falcone, perhaps because even with a star this explosively talented, their movies don’t exactly, you know, “work.” But as messes go, The Boss is intermittently funny, occasionally bold and incredibly ballsy in its willingness, even eagerness, to push away audiences but like so many funny people through the ages, male and female, McCarthy is undermined by a universal but regrettable desire to be loved.
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