Watching Melissa McCarthy's latest vehicle, it's easy to imagine how it could have been an irreverent comedy in the vein of "Anchorman" or "Zoolander." But directed by McCarthy's husband Ben Falcone, "The Boss" gets too caught up in keeping its star likable, and so refuses to sink its teeth into the meat of its promising premise.
McCarthy plays a Martha Stewart-like Michelle Darnell, a cutthroat businesswoman whose empire crumbles when she's convicted of insider trading. Fresh out of prison, Michelle reconnects with her bullied executive assistant (Kristen Bell) to work her way back to the top with Darnell's Darlings, a Dandelions (think "Girls Scouts") competitor that uses surly girls to sell brownies door-to-door and in front of medicinal marijuana shops.
"The Boss" is at its best when McCarthy is at her worst. She spits at a former protégé that his recently deceased wife is probably screwing around on him in hell. With a maniacal smile she threatens a troop leader, and then incites a full-on slo-motion brawl between Dandelions and Darlings that includes a child being swung by her pigtails, ponytails hacked off as human trophies, and the clothes-lining of a culottes-wearing tween bully.
Sadly, moments that ludicrous and hilarious are few and far between, watered down by repeated references to Michelle's pitiable backstory (orphanage, rejection, nuns) and much, much bonding with cute-as-a-button child co-star Ella Anderson, who plays Bell's friendly but otherwise character-free daughter. The heavy-handed sweetness dulls the R-rated edge to safety-scissors quality.
Incredibly, "The Boss" begins not by establishing Michelle as the baddest bitch in business, but by flashing back to 1970, 1975 and then 1980. In each short scene, a furious little Michelle is rejected by a foster family and dumped back onto the steps of an orphanage, more and more convinced that families are for suckers. We're made to pity the antiheroine right out the gate, souring the fun of the first 20 minutes of jokes where we should be relishing in her gleeful arrogance. Without that setup, "The Boss" wouldn't be burdened by such a slow start. But sadly Falcone doesn't seem to see what works best when it concerns his wife.
As we've seen in "The Heat" and, to a lesser degree, "Identity Thief," McCarthy can be outlandish and outright cruel and still get big laughs, whether she's mercilessly mocking a victim's name or chucking heavy fruit at a fleeing suspect. But in "The Boss," the determination to telegraph its "she's got goodness inside her wounded soul" ending makes for a tedious experience. And softening its antiheroine's edges so fast spoils the foil that is Bell's ethical and kind single mom.
Worse yet, Bell's "Veronica Mars"-honed wit goes unused. Aside from one scene in which Michelle turns Bells' breasts into a bra strap-pulled puppet show, the movie makes little use of their combined comedy chops. So, Bell is often left to be shocked and scolding, or else to flirt with wedged-in love interest Tyler Labine. To his credit, Labine proves funny and surprisingly hunky in the part, but he's such a jarring addition to the narrative already overstuffed with plot points and villains that even the female leads repeatedly ask, "Why are you here?"
As to the villains, there are plenty to choose from. Kathy Bates drops in and then quickly right back out as Michelle's spurned mentor. Cecily Strong comes and goes as Bell's new hellish boss, who blinks a lot and fangirls over Michelle to the point of literal fondling. And then comes Peter Dinklage: He's so good on "Game of Thrones." How is it that when it comes to his off-season movies he gives us this and the brain-deadening mess that is "Pixels"?
Playing a business rival/former lover/wannabe samurai, Dinklage wears his hair in a ratty topknot and bosses about his very tall underling ("Veep's" Timothy Simons, basically doing his deliciously cowardly, kowtowing Jonah Ryan act). Most of Dinklage's "jokes" boil down to insisting his name is Renault not Ronald, and various references to Ron and Michelle's "go-go '90s" sexual encounters. If the idea of McCarthy and Dinklage having sex strikes you as absolutely hilarious, well then, "The Boss" is for you. Otherwise, Dinklage regrettably brings little else to the table aside from mug glowering. But "Game of Thrones" fans will get the brief thrill of seeing him wield a sword with aplomb, because why not?
All in all, "The Boss" is a bungling of its greatest asset: McCarthy. That's particularly perplexing considering she, Falcone and Steve Mallory wrote the movie for her based on one of her old Groundlings characters. McCarthy won our hearts when she pooped into a sink in "Bridesmaids"; fearless and screwed-up is where her humor shines brightest. So why do she and her closest collaborators so fear having her dive into her dark side?
"The Boss" opens Friday nationwide.