Melissa McCarthy is funny. Committed to wringing every last laugh out of her scripts, she’ll do anything to get a giggle and I think that’s what makes her latest film, “The Boss,” kind of an uncomfortable watch. You can tell she’s working on overdrive trying to mine jokes out of as script that is unwilling to give them up. Few bosses have ever worked this hard for this little return.
She plays Michelle Darnell, a mix and match of Leona Helmsley and Martha Stewart. A child of neglect, she’s now the ruthless ideal of the virtues of greed whose brash attitude and potty mouth have made her a “cash champion” and the 47th wealthiest woman in America. When her ex-lover and nemesis Renault (Peter Dinklage) leaks information to the SEC a conviction for insider trading brings down her empire. After a jail sentence she’s freed, homeless and without a dime to her name.
Her former assistant Claire (Kristen Bell) grudgingly gives Michelle a place to stay, allowing her to move into the small walk-up apartment she shares with her preteen daughter Rachel (Ella Anderson). With the new living arrangement comes a new business opportunity in the form of Claire’s delicious home baked brownies. “This is my way back,” she says. “You’re looking at Darnell 2.0.”
A mix of vulgarity, slapstick and sentimentality, “The Boss” starts slow and despite a funny-ish midsection never fully recovers. McCarthy pulls out all the stops, leading the violent charge in a turf war between Darnell’s Darlings and a Girl Guides troop called the Dandelions and never misses a pratfall, but the material just isn’t there.
Her trademark is making unlikeable characters likable. We’ve seen her do it in everything from “Tammy” to “Identity Thief” and beyond, but she’s met her match with Michelle Darnell. She’s so terrible she was returned to an orphanage by three sets of adoptive parents. Later in life she’s told at a country club, “no one at this table likes you,” and it’s not hard to see why. The warmth of her previous characters is AWOL and no amount of late movie sentimentality will change that.
Coming off a career high with the very funny “Spy” makes “The Boss” an even bigger disappointment. A capable and agreeable cast surrounds her—but I wish they had given Bell something more interesting to do—and certainly the idea of unchecked avarice is ripe with comedic possibilities but it never gels. When the best you can say about it is that it’s better than “Tammy,” the last film she made with director (and husband) Ben Falcone, it’s time to admit that “The Boss” is not always right.