The title character of Melissa McCarthy’s new film is one she created years ago during her stint at the Los Angeles comedy troupe The Groundlings, so it’s not surprising that The Boss feels like an elongated sketch. It’s an intermittently very funny one, to be sure, with McCarthy once again demonstrating her expert comic delivery and prodigious gift for physical humor. But its paper-thin characterizations, hackneyed plotting and overdependence on viciously profane humor put this effort more in the minor league of Tammy, McCarthy’s previous collaboration with her director/co-screenwriter husband Ben Falcone, than her truly inspired work with Paul Feig on Bridesmaids and Spy. The Universal release should continue the talented actress’s box-office winning streak, but it’s hard not to wish that she set her artistic sights a bit higher.
Her character’s traits enhanced by florid outfits and an impressive wig, McCarthy plays Chicagoan Michelle Darnell, the “47th richest woman in America” — any resemblance to Martha Stewart is strictly coincidental, I’m sure — who clawed her way to the top through a combination of street smarts and betrayals of both her former mentor Ida (Kathy Bates) and ex-lover/business partner Renault (Peter Dinklage). Michelle’s take-no-prisoners attitude is explained via an early montage in which she’s seen as a young girl being unceremoniously returned to her orphanage after being rejected by a series of foster families. Now she proudly revels in her ostentatious wealth and abuses everyone in her orbit, including her beleaguered personal assistant Claire (Kristen Bell).
But when Michelle once again screws over her rival Renault on a deal, he spills the beans to the authorities about her nefarious business activities, and the Club Fed prison gates clang shut on her for six months. Upon her release she discovers that her home has been taken away and her assets have been stripped, leaving her little recourse but to show up at the door of the apartment of Claire and her pre-teen daughter Rachel (Ella Anderson). Claire, who’s now working at a low-level office job, initially resists having her former boss as her houseguest, but finally gives in and allows Michelle to sleep on her couch until she can get back on her feet.
Reluctantly agreeing to escort Rachel to a meeting of her after-school group the Dandelions, Michelle is inspired by their Girls Scout-style cookie-selling operation and hatches a plan to start a rival group, “Darnell’s Darlings,” to sell Claire’s delicious home-baked brownies. The venture is an instant success, resulting in an intense rivalry between the two groups that leads to a knock-down-drag-out brawl in which the adolescent girls and their adult chaperones mercilessly pummel each other in Sam Peckinpah-style slow motion. Meanwhile, Renault schemes to take over the burgeoning business, with Michelle mistakenly getting the impression that Claire is in cahoots with him. The ensuing corporate intrigue culminates in a rooftop swordfight between Michelle and her former lover who’s still besotted with her.
Most of the humor in the film scripted by McCarthy, Falcone and their former Groundlings cohort Steve Mallory derives from the shock value of McCarthy’s character spewing out as many venomous, profanity-laden insults as possible. The actress delivers them with a gusto that’s infectiously enjoyable up to a point, but the law of diminishing returns quickly sets in. There’s also loads of physical comedy, with the performer throwing her body (and body double) about with reckless abandon in scenes in which she gets ejected off a sofa bed, tumbles down a flight of steps and crosses swords in the aforementioned battle that was presumably funnier in concept than execution.
Bell, whose Claire is also involved in a subplot involving her budding romance with a besotted co-worker (an appealingly loose Taylor Labine), effectively plays straight man to the outrageous McCarthy, even gamely participating in a lengthy routine in which she and McCarthy vigorously grope each other’s breasts. Dinklage, affecting an elaborately put-on accent and donning silly designer clothes, has a ball showing off his under-exploited comedic chops, although his performance, like much of the proceedings in general, veers too heavily into caricature.
The Boss doesn’t even have the courage of its crass convictions, devolving into schmaltz as it eventually humanizes its central character, who comes to realize that she really wants close emotional connections after all. The sentimental plot development is even more shamelessly contrived than everything that’s preceded it.
Production companies: On the Day, Gary Sanchez
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Bell, Peter Dinklage, Ella Anderson, Tyler Labine, Kathy Bates, Cecily Strong
Director: Ben Falcone
Screenwriters: Melissa McCarthy, Ben Falcone, Steve Mallory
Producers: Melissa McCarthy, Ben Falcone, Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, Chris Henchy
Executive producers: Rob Cowan, Kevin Messick
Director of photography: Julio Macat
Production designer: Rusty Smith
Editor: Craig Alpert
Costume designer: Wendy Chuck
Composer: Christopher Lennertz
Rated R, 99 minutes