There’s nothing particularly bad about Ben Falcone’s The Boss. It’s a movie that exists, and it’s a movie that made me laugh intermittently while I was watching it. It knows how to use its lead actress and co-writer Melissa McCarthy fairly well while rarely challenging her or pushing her beyond her comfort zone. It’s an R-rated comedy, but none of the R-rated jokes will shock audiences. It’s a movie that’s perfectly fine, but it does raise the question of what makes McCarthy a special talent or if she’s just queen of a very limited domain?
McCarthy plays Michelle Darnell, a business mogul who loses everything when she’s convicted of insider trading (to the film’s credit, it doesn’t try to say she was framed; to the film’s discredit, she doesn’t really seem to feel any regret for committing white collar crime). When she gets out of jail, she seeks help from her former assistant, single mom Claire (Kirsten Bell), who works at a job she hates and can bake a mean batch of brownies. After Michelle takes Claire’s daughter Rachel (Ella Anderson) to a Dandelions (a Girl Scouts’ like organization) meeting, Michelle gets the idea to regain her empire by recruiting young girls to sell Claire’s brownies. Michelle basically takes a non-profit organization like the Girl Scouts and becomes the hero by making it for-profit.
The film is always trying to polish up Michelle, and it’s a pattern we’ve seen with her characters. McCarthy does insult comedy so well that her movies feel the need to apologize for her character. In the case of The Boss as well as her 2013 film Identity Thief, the excuse is McCarthy’s character wasn’t loved enough as a child. It’s flimsy, shortcut storytelling that creates a simplistic arc: McCarthy’s character is a jerk to people, those people come to feel sympathy for McCarthy’s character for some reason, McCarthy’s character tries to push those people away, McCarthy’s character realizes she needs friends in her life and becomes a slightly better person.
The predictability drains the film of its energy so that even the best jokes are reduced to just a chuckle. The Boss is a safe film, and while McCarthy’s may say “fuck” a lot, poke fun at a teenager’s sexuality, or punch a mother in the face, there’s no real sense of trying to shock the audience, which isn’t a crime. Not every film as to be aggressive, but the cost is a film that’s quickly forgettable, and not entirely worthy of McCarthy’s talents.
It’s odd that McCarthy, working her husband Falcone, who co-wrote the script with her and Steve Mallory, shouldn’t have the best sense of her own comic talents, and yet she’s been far better when paired with Paul Feig, the director Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy. Those McCarthy characters also have a soft spot, but they also feature a much better rapport with her co-stars, a better sense of setting, and force McCarthy to up her game rather than a movie like The Boss, which coasts as a vehicle for the actress and nothing more.
I’m a fan of McCarthy’s, so perhaps that’s why I was charmed throughout The Boss, but I’m also a fan of the talented supporting cast like Bell, Michelle’s former lover turned rival Renault (Peter Dinklage), his flunkey (Timothy Simons), and her mentor (Kathy Bates), but they rarely get a chance to shine in the same way that other co-stars do in McCarthy’s more successful movies. It’s not necessarily that less of McCarthy is a good thing for a movie, but The Boss shows that it’s not enough for her to be the only good thing.