The Messy Hilarity of Melissa McCarthy In The Boss

If you’re a fan of the true comedic versatility of Melissa McCarthy, then her latest vehicle is better than a well-written movie.
By  · Published on April 7th, 2016

It’s easy to understand why The Boss is getting such a negative response from critics. It’s not a great movie. But it’s also not a terrible vehicle for Melissa McCarthy. She’s recognized in many reviews for being plenty funny in an otherwise messy endeavor, but sometimes that’s all a comedy has to be. Let Paul Feig craft a focused script for his muse. And let her be as amusing as she can be in the well-developed roles he writes for her. But if you want to see the full McCarthy, doing her thing her own way, you should also check out her latest collaboration with her other favorite regular director, who also happens to be her husband, Ben Falcone.

McCarthy and Falcone, who last gave us the heavily panned Tammy, wrote the screenplay for The Boss with actor Steve Mallory. I wish I could have been in the room for their meetings together, because it’s unclear what sort of movie they set out to make. It’s centered around a character McCarthy created 16 years ago while a member of The Groundlings, and supposedly she’s been fine-tuning this woman, an enormously wealthy entrepreneur named Michelle Darnell, all these years. But she’s not really a distinctly interesting character in any way other than she rattles off barbs like she’s a Gatling gun loaded with outrageous and often quite elaborate insults.

At first, The Boss seems to be a simple rags-to-riches-to-rags story of a mean-spirited Scrooge who changes her heart after going to prison, losing all her money and having to live with her old assistant (Kristen Bell) and the woman’s daughter (Ella Anderson), who become the only family she’s ever had. Then it turns into a strange mix of The Bad News Bears and Troop Beverly Hills where Michelle teaches kids that nonprofit scouting organizations are scams and leads them in a moneymaking brownie business set on crushing the cookie-dominated world of youth club fundraising. But then it changes again, becoming more a movie about former lovers turned business rivals where the baked good sales competition is all but forgotten.

There are at least two and a half situations to this comedy and two villains. Annie Mumolo (with a side of Kristen Schaal, basically becoming the Mary Gross of her generation) is McCarthy’s nemesis for the scout rivalry story, while Peter Dinklage (with a side of Timothy Simons typecast as another sycophant) is the enemy in the bigger business arena. At one point The Boss seems to become a heist film, at another it’s a romantic comedy, and early on it looks like it’s going to become a satire of financial gurus, then of white collar crime and its punishments. Midway into the movie it goes for an Anchorman-inspired bit involving an absurdly violent street fight. Involving kids. Punching each other in their crotches, swinging girls by their ponytails, wagons of cookies on fire, ridiculous stuff.

The Boss isn’t necessarily trying to be too many things. There’s nothing wrong with a thicker comedy with regards to the pile-on of plot. But it is indeed a whole lot of things, and I wonder if it’s meant to just let McCarthy cover as much ground as she wants and is capable of. Sometimes she’s falling down stairs or being thrown to the wall by a foldout sofa bed with an impossible catapulting defect. Or she’s spray tanning her vagina in open view of her gracious new roommates for what’s meant to be a dash of gross-out humor. There’s a face-paralyzing fugu-eating sushi restaurant scene tossed in just because.

McCarthy and her collaborators throw so much out there that a good deal of it is going to land for a lot of viewers. Her spelled reference to a characters as a “B-I-T-C-U-N-T” will likely stick in people’s minds. Also “vaguvenation” is a word that very hit well with the audience I saw it with. There’s also a lot of things that don’t work or make sense. In one scene McCarthy’s character says she tried something called a Dorito, as if she’d been too rich to know what that is. But we saw that she grew up a poor, overweight orphan and surely was familiar with them, so that bit just seemed dumb. Until I thought about it again later as though the character is feigning ignorance of regular folk snacks. Then I found it funny.

The Boss can be a very flawed movie while still being hilarious. And if you like cursing children or rude and raunchy put-downs or broad buffoonery or any number of other kinds of comedy found in the movie, most of it representative of the versatility of McCarthy’s schtick, then it’s worthwhile. Plenty of comedians have gotten away with suiting fans in both good and bad movies, as delivery systems for their routines. The Marx Brothers, for instance did tons of sloppy features where they still could be depended on by fans for many great laughs. McCarthy’s issue, if not that she’s a woman (I suspect Will Ferrell, who is a producer of The Boss, or Billy Bob Thornton would be let off the hook more with a movie like The Boss than she is), might be that her schtick is not as dependable for some people because it’s just so all over the place.

Some comics are their most comfortable and funniest doing stand-up on an open, otherwise empty stage. I believe for someone like McCarthy the equivalent is just being able to run freely without any confines of logic or too much character development or narrative focus, and she needs a decent ensemble of funny supporting players who can also be enjoyed despite being nothing more than foils or receptacles for her comedy. She has a stage for her act, but it’s filled with clutter and it’s put forth in the form of a movie. And as with any comedian, if you don’t find her funny, you just don’t go see it. And if you do find her funny, you should have a blast with The Boss.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.