April 11, 2016

Human Middle Finger Melissa McCarthy Cannot Save 'The Boss' From Itself

In The Boss, Melissa McCarthy is like a human-size middle finger capped with a sprig of too-perfectly coiffed red hair. She dominates every scene she’s in, but like the moronic Tammy, holding the beleaguered fast food restaurant employees hostage, she does so by force. You will laugh at me, McCarthy seems to be screaming. And many do, despite the fact that The Boss is an almost total embarrassment, save for a few well-constructed scenes. McCarthy plays Michelle Darnell, celebrity CEO. The first time we see Michelle, she’s headlining some swanky financial self-help conference, where she emerges onto a glittering stage like a rock star, accompanied by dancers and belting out some wretched hip hop song. The rapping is just about as painful as all those pratfalls McCarthy stages in her pandering attempt to make us love her comedy.

Michelle is someone who’s earned the freedom to be obnoxious thanks to her immense wealth. The movie opens with scenes of young Michelle being dropped off at the orphanage, repeatedly, by various families who, like the kidnappers in “The Ransom of Red Chief,” soon regret choosing that kid. She’s that kid alright. We get three of these scenes, but nothing about them changes except the song playing in the car as Michelle is dumped back on the steps of the orphanage, the final time waving her middle finger and shouting obscenities as the rejecting parents speed off. That’s Melissa McCarthy’s lot in life: She must always play the women nobody wants, then spend the rest of the movie convincing us that her ugliness and selfishness are attractive, appealing, charmingly offbeat.

But even though the movie wants to revel in Michelle’s character flaws--The Boss relies heavily upon the conflict created by a hostile word or deed--it also wants to reform them. We can count on two things in McCarthy’s worst movies: A) That she will be almost unbearably nasty and B) that she will have to change for the better by the end.

Why this Victorian need to reform Michelle? The set-up is so obvious that we know Michelle’s problem from the start: She cannot let herself get close to others because she’s been rejected so many times. Thus, when Michelle is busted for insider trading and completely ruined, she’s forced to live with her put-upon ex-assistant Claire (played by Kristen Bell), who has a daughter named Rachel. We know why all this is happening: So that Michelle can learn THE IMPORTANCE OF FAMILY. Yes, family is so beautiful, if only you can find the right family; and you shouldn’t let your horrible family poison your image of the ideal family, because, FAMILY!

For a movie this bawdy (full of raucous jeers and profane outbursts and cartoonish violence) to embrace such treacly sentiments feels like a cop-out. As a writer, McCarthy doesn't seem to understand her own merits. This is the second time McCarthy deserves the blame for coughing up a bad movie vehicle. The wretched Tammy provided us with the first inklings that McCathy works better with other people’s material. She and husband Ben Falcone worked out the script for both Tammy and The Boss, and Falcone directed them both. They start with the premise that McCarthy embodies a certain brand of offensive chaos and they run with it.

McCarthy is at her best under the direction of Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, Spy), who knows how to unleash her like a stick of dynamite with great comic effect. Even when they’re falling down or saying something outrageous, the characters McCarthy plays in Bridesmaids and Spy keep their dignity. They're capable women, and they aren't merely the butt of someone else's joke. And even though there's something effortlessly wicked and amusing about that look Melissa McCarthy gets on her face when she's whispering horrible threats while forcing a deadly smile, in The Boss she never overcomes the obnoxiousness of her character. 

The story of Michelle’s attempts to restore her financial greatness is promising, but it's executed poorly. Michelle creates a sort-of Girl Scouts for Profit, where the girls actually get to keep a percentage of the brownies they sell. But, when she gets too close to Claire (whose brownie recipe is responsible for the company’s success) and Rachel, Michelle sells the business to a rival CEO (and former lover) played by Peter Dinklage. She screws over her business partner all because of her pathological fear of connection and rejection. The act feels tired and meaningless, especially when we can already predict the outcome. 

The Boss
fails because it doesn’t have the nerve to go all the way: It can be brassy and offensive up to a point, but only because it will self-correct in the end. The final 20 minutes, in which Michelle, Claire, and Claire’s banal love interest try to steal a contract to save their business, are a total misfire, riddled with missed opportunities and yawn-inducing clich├ęs. It fails too because McCarthy and Falcone do not want to create a more complex character: Why can’t Michelle be both offensive and charming? Why do Michelle’s flaws have to be so easily diagnosed? When Barbara Stanwyck doesn’t reform in The Lady Eve, it’s because she’s exactly how she wants to be, and she’s managed to win her man to boot, without compromising her criminal values. The Boss demands so much from us: it shouldn’t demand that we swallow its Hallmark ending too.

With Annie Mumulo, Kristen Schaal, and Kathy Bates (who plays Michelle's mentor/sworn enemy, and adds some texture to her three minutes of screen time).

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