Silver Screen: The Boss ***
Melissa McCarthy is a maestro of profanity.
It’s not just cursing for a cheap joke. She can put a spin on invective like few others, turning a crass expression into a wry little tickle with a subtle lilt of her intonation, or hit a guttural insult like a jackhammer busting through cement.
McCarthy employs this ability to great effect in The Boss, her followup film with director and cowriter (and husband, and son of Southern Illinois) Ben Falcone. Their first collaboration, Tammy, failed to maximize her talents. The Boss is uneven, but it’s a terrific showcase for McCarthy’s truly impressive range.
The odd thing about The Boss: The first ten minutes and the last fifteen seem to have been grafted on from a strange alternate-universe version of itself. Following a heartfelt prologue, it opens big— too big— with a lavish business seminar wherein tycoon and investment guru Michelle Darnell wows a packed arena with pyrotechnics and a hip-hop duet with T-Pain. It’s an overly elaborate setup to establish the basic facts of Michelle’s incredible success, her mistreatment of long-suffering assistant Claire (Kristen Bell), and her fall from grace via unapologetic tax fraud.
Then the film takes it down a notch and settles into a nice rhythm. When we rejoin Michelle after several months spent in a white-collar jail, she’s not an outlandish prison stereotype— no cornrows, no stupid tattoos or jail slang. She behaves the way a driven business tycoon would... or at least a slightly oblivious one. Upon her release the guards laugh at her for expecting a Town Car to whisk her away, but they also stop to ask her for financial advice; clearly, she’s figured out how to charm her way around. (For a hilarious real-life example of this, check out the later sections of Jordan Belfort’s memoir The Wolf of Wall Street.)
Michelle is out of jail but stripped of her empire. Her loutish behavior and bad sportsmanship alienated everyone who would potentially help her, so she falls back on the sympathy of kindhearted Claire, who reluctantly offers to let her share Claire and her daughter Rachel’s (Ella Anderson) small Chicago apartment.
Michelle’s killer instincts can’t be restrained. When she takes Rachel to a meeting of the Dandelions, a Girl Scout stand-in, Michelle is stunned by the top-heavy socialist waste and deep earning potential of the group’s cookie-selling operation. Rather than oust the daffy, brittle Dandelion leader (Kristen Schaal), Michelle decides to start Darnell’s Darlings, a more efficient operation that sells Claire’s homemade brownies while teaching the young charges the real rules of business and helping them self-actualize.
McCarthy reps a weird, wonderful brand of feminism. She doesn’t signify it the same way more overt satirists like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler do, but she busts through gender constraints like she didn’t even notice they were there. She’s brash but unabashedly feminine, neither willing to stoop to body-shaming jokes nor too pious to throw herself into a good gag if it’s truly funny. Michelle’s total disregard of social convention makes her both an oblivious guardian to the young girls, but also a shining example of how not to be defined by other people’s expectations.
In Michelle she gets to show the full spectrum of her abilities. The Boss works best as a surprisingly nuanced character study that plays the title character’s significant flaws for laughs while simultaneously celebrating her strengths— and showing how the two can be so closely interrelated. The film revolves around Michelle, and McCarthy, so much so that even a movie star like the luminous Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars!) becomes a secondary presence, albeit a delightful one. Only Kathy Bates, in a single scene with McCarthy, is able to conjure up matching gravitas.
Once The Boss finds its balance, it’s a delight, heartfelt, small-scale, and packed with a handful of hard-hitting punchlines. Baffling then that the final act is such a bizarre mess, pitting a katana-wielding Peter Dinklage against Michelle in what’s played like a genuinely dangerous fight, perhaps to the death, atop a skyscraper.
Dinklage is a terrific sport and a funny guy, but his character, the cartoonishly villainous Renault, shows up in the first act, fades into the background as the movie becomes better and more grounded, then pops up out of nowhere at the end as a plot device, seemingly just to give a definitive ending to a story already light on conflict. It doesn’t tank the movie— the highs definitely outnumber the lows— but it’s a bummer to see a movie falter on the landing right after its pulled off so many impressive maneuvers.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillerComedy.