Is it possible that Melissa McCarthy’s funniest, most memorable characters are only in Paul Feig movies? It’s starting to look that way because “Bridesmaids”, “The Heat”, and “Spy” were her outlandish best, while her other films have felt like poor attempts to copycat their success. That includes characters created by McCarthy herself, like the blustering one-percenter Michelle Darnell in “The Boss”. Directed and co-written by McCarthy’s husband, Ben Falcone, the film resembles in all of the worst ways their previous collaboration, the road trip debacle “Tammy”, in that it’s never quite as scathing as it wants to be, and isn’t heart-warming enough to be redemptive.
The best scenes in “The Boss” occur early on as McCarthy is set free to cut loose in a shower of glorious white collar excess. Looking like the turtleneck and pantsuit-wearing offspring of Hillary Clinton and Tony Robbins, Michelle Darnell preaches her brand of “get rich quick” Wall Street mumbo jumbo to a packed arena. While she preaches that everyone who follows her plan will get rich, it’s really all about showing off just how disgustingly wealthy she already is, arriving on the back of a flaming phoenix and boasting that she once paid to have Destiny’s Child reunite in her home, just to watch them break up again.
The redemption process begins early and hilariously through flashbacks of Michelle as an orphaned child, repeatedly dumped by parent after parent, turning her into the fiercely independent woman she would turn out to be. But that isolation has also made her incredibly self-involved; her office is decked out with huge self-portraits, and she can barely remember that her beleaguered assistant Claire (Kristen Bell) is a single mother with her own problems. After Michelle spends four months in prison for insider trading, she’s forced to live in Claire’s cramped Chicago apartment, on a foldout couch that might as well double as a catapult. But it’s there that Michelle has a brilliant money-making idea; use Claire’s daughter Rachel (Ella Anderson) to sell brownies through her Dandelion troop.
Who knew the brownie selling business could be so cutthroat? Michelle rips up and down the stuck-up moms who refuse to let their daughters join, erupting into a brawl that nearly puts Anchorman’s star-studded fights to shame, except that it’s a bunch of little girls and women beating up little girls…which is admittedly a little creepy. Michelle also has run-ins with her former love, Renault (it’s really Ronald…from New Jersey), played by Peter Dinklage, who holds a grudge against her. The problem is that Renault isn’t much of a foe, and when he’s gone for long stretches it doesn’t really matter. But Michelle is also only interesting when she has someone to tear into, be it woman or child. The film’s best one-liners (best saved for maximum laughter) are Michelle’s vicious verbal assaults on one mother played by “Bridesmaids” and “Joy” writer Annie Mumolo. She can’t call her tall daughter a “freak” enough, or suggest that she’s a lesbian-in-waiting. And like some of McCarthy’s less successful films, when the jokes dry up she relies on falling flat on her face, with diminishing results. Physical humor is one of the things she does best, but it’s not a substitute for a lousy script or Falcone’s shoddy direction.
The final act, which includes an impromptu heist of some important business documents, is especially barren, except to cement Michelle’s unsatisfying change-of-heart. Many of McCarthy’s characters undergo a similar transformation, but so little effort is put into redeeming them that it almost never works. Michelle is one of those cases; she’s just as terrible and unlikable at the end as she was in the beginning, troubled upbringing or not. And it’s not like she just tells one lie or two, she actively destroys lives. Why do we want to root for her?
McCarthy and Falcone have a great rapport with one another on the big screen, always with him as a character refusing her sexual advances. They flash that ironic chemistry in “The Boss”, as well. But as filmmaking partners it may be a good idea to have an open relationship.