A she-wolf of Wall Street with a spiky ginger Suze Orman shag, Michelle Darnell, the anti-heroine of fitfully funny The Boss, is the latest of the Rabelaisian wonders played by Melissa McCarthy. The actress specializes in characters with indestructible bravado, no matter where they stand on the socioeconomic ladder; Michelle, “the “47th-wealthiest woman in the world,” joins the swaggering sorority formed by Megan in Bridesmaids (2011), Mullins in The Heat (2013) and even Tammy in, uh, Tammy (2014). That last film, a muddle of half-thought-out ideas, was ineptly directed by Ben Falcone, McCarthy’s husband. That the spouses reteamed for The Boss made me worry that go-it-alone Michelle’s definition of family — “an anchor that will make you sink” — would prove all too accurate. The Boss is a better film than Tammy, but it still founders, almost capsizing in its sloppy final third.
Yet The Boss’ opening moments showcase McCarthy’s brilliance at basking in excess. (And wearing it: Outfitted in turtlenecks that stretch to the chin and bows the size of spinnakers, her ensembles suggesting what might result if Wendy and Lisa developed their own line at Eileen Fisher, Michelle is a paragon of tailored too-much-ness.)
After a prologue shows the future magnate being repeatedly returned to a Catholic orphanage by cowed foster families, rejections that forge her steely resolve, the adult tycoon makes her entrance to the stage of an arena packed with frenzied acolytes on the back of an ablaze phoenix (“my totem animal”). In her seminar — part TED Talk, part Ozzfest, part Hot 97 Summer Jam — Michelle lets the screaming hordes know that no indulgence, no matter how byzantine or bizarre, is out of her price range: “I had Destiny’s Child reunite and come to my personal living room just so I could watch them break up again.”
That’s just one of many hilarious scenarios we are left to imagine — another is Michelle telling an enemy that his sainted dead wife is “fuckin’ IT guys in hell” — and McCarthy’s delivery and timing are, as ever, flawless. “My tongue has always been my sword,” Michelle boasts, words that also apply to the woman who plays her. McCarthy created the bumptious mogul roughly 15 years ago while a member of the Groundlings; as she did with Tammy, the actress co-wrote the script of The Boss with Falcone. (Steve Mallory, who met both McCarthy and Falcone as a fellow Groundling, also has a screenplay credit.) McCarthy’s long history with the character likely accounts for the fact that The Boss, at least initially, has a tighter plot than Tammy and is less reliant on dumb throwaway gags.
But like the earlier movie, The Boss gives its star few, if any, hitting partners. It’s a baffling decision, considering that McCarthy is not only a terrific ensemble performer, as her breakthrough turn in Bridesmaids demonstrated, but also a generous lead when working with a scene-stealing supporting cast, as evidenced in last year’s riotous Spy. McCarthy’s castmates this time out include Kristen Bell, playing Claire, the one-time assistant Michelle turns to after serving a four-month jail sentence for insider trading. The disgraced 1-percenter moves into the Chicago walkup where her ex-employee, a single mom, is raising her tween daughter, Rachel (Ella Anderson).
Claire proves a dull foil: She may upbraid her former overseer, but her chastisement is always softened by Bell’s inveterate sunny blandness. (I wish Bell’s part had gone to Cecily Strong, the SNL star who here plays Claire’s supervisor at a miserable office job; as is the case with her bit role in The Bronze, a patchy comedy released a few weeks back, Strong’s talents are completely underutilized in The Boss.)
McCarthy must also share the screen with Peter Dinklage, an actor with no demonstrable gift for comedy, who plays Michelle’s vengeful ex-lover Renault. Complications arising from the scorned swain’s payback scheme, plus Michelle’s invariable redemptive quest to be incorporated into the nuclear unit of Claire and her daughter, set off the disastrous last act. These closing scenes include a wearying caper to retrieve documents from Renault’s office, a plot thread that too prominently features the acharismatic Tyler Labine (as Claire’s boyfriend) and feeble dick-sucking jokes. Better are the lesbo jabs that Michelle makes during Rachel’s scout-group meeting (here called the Dandelions) — a gathering that provides McCarthy with two equals: the indignant matron played by Annie Mumolo (who co-wrote Bridesmaids with Kristen Wiig) and, in her screen debut, Eva Peterson as Chrystal, a terrifying classmate of Rachel’s who becomes Michelle’s top lieutenant in her Dandelion takeover.
The rapport between the veteran comic genius and the neophyte, even in the few scenes they share, suggests that McCarthy may next want to buddy up not with a peer (like Sandra Bullock in The Heat) or with someone a generation older (Susan Sarandon in Tammy) but with a kid at least 30 years her junior.