Ever since 2011's Bridesmaids, Melissa McCarthy's films have played as though she walked into the studio before shooting began and told the producers, "Here's the deal. I will do absolutely anything you want in this film, as long as there's one scene where I actually get to act." For the past five years, the films she's headlined — Identity Thief, The Heat, Tammy, and Spy — have piled on the pratfalls and fat jokes. Her movie characters are brash loudmouths, squalling and swearing to fend off their loneliness and regret. But they all have sweet, soft secret hearts. And like clockwork, at least once per movie, those characters hit a low point where they lay their vulnerabilities bare. McCarthy has always used those moments to remind her fans that she has dramatic talents, as well as comedic ones. No matter how hyper and vulgar the comedy beats became, she always managed to inject some touching pathos and humanity into her characters, at least for a few minutes at a time.
So her new comedy, The Boss, feels like a significant and regrettable break with tradition. It mostly follows the pattern, with McCarthy playing another smug trash-talker who hides a lifetime of wounded desperation under her vulgar, unapologetic, hilariously selfish surface. But The Boss never finds the sincerity to go with the shrieking. It has the requisite low-point moments, but it mysteriously plays them as though they barely matter. That's such a minor change, and it's only really evident in a few minutes of the film. But it turns The Boss into a slick shrug of a movie that feels closer to an Adam Sandler comedy than to McCarthy's past projects.
The Boss still isn't likely to be the film that wins over McCarthy's detractors, or drives off her fans. It's middle-of-the-road comedy, playing it slick and safe. And for McCarthy, nothing is safer than charging ahead at full speed and full intensity. Here, she revives a character she created during her stint in Los Angeles' comedy troupe The Groundlings: arrogant, ultra-rich mogul Michelle Darnell, who built her multiple Fortune 500 companies from the ground up. An opening montage lays out the core of Michelle's personality: summarily rejected by three adoptive families in a row, repeatedly dumped back on the steps of her Catholic orphanage like an unwanted puppy, she consciously decided that family and emotional ties were useless and limiting. As an adult, she preaches that philosophy to the cheering hordes at glitzy motivational seminars, where she enters on the back of a golden phoenix shooting fireworks, duets on "All I Do Is Win" with T-Pain, then tells her rabid fans that other people are anchors tying them down, and they need to cut everyone loose and set sail.
Essentially, she's a McCarthified version of the Hateful Film Businessman, glued to his cell phone and perpetually missing his kids' piano recitals or sporting events, and primed for a magical lesson about what's really important in life. Naturally, someone who rejects family ties and personal loyalty needs to learn the value of both by the end of the film. So in short order, Michelle is jailed for inside trading, loses everything, and moves in with her saintly former assistant Claire (Kristen Bell) and Claire's open-hearted tween daughter Rachel (Ella Anderson). Eventually, Michelle hatches a scheme to make money by exploiting Claire's talents and Rachel's age group. But first, there's a lot of comic business about what an awful houseguest she is, what an unrepentant and messy slob she is, and how ill-equipped she is to deal with poverty. It's a sloppy-comedy version of Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine, with less Streetcar Named Desire baggage, and more vagina-related dialogue.
McCarthy co-wrote The Boss' screenplay with her husband, Ben Falcone (who also directs, and cameos as Michelle's lawyer) and Steve Mallory, who helped write the Michelle Darnell sketches back in the Groundlings days. The three of them give the film plenty of comic momentum, with cartoon-physics violence and rag-doll bodies flying through the air. There's some inspired left-field wackiness, like Larry Dorf as a security guard who's "into demons." Peter Dinklage as Michelle's former lover Renault, a puffed-up businessman with a Japanese-culture fetish and a katana collection, is a particularly surreal touch. He's too cartoonish to carry the dramatic beats he's given, but at least his exaggerated character adds flavor to a largely generic Scrooge story.
The film could use more of that kind of specificity. It's never clear, for instance, what Michelle's gigantic businesses actually do, or why so many families booted her back to the nuns, or why someone so financially sharp wasn't able to shelter anything in her empire from spontaneous collapse — except, apparently, an extensive wardrobe of stylish wraps and double-chin-hiding turtlenecks. The exact specifics in all those cases aren't really necessary for the story. But the script glosses over everything that's important to the characters, which makes them vague and poreless. Some sense of specificity, about virtually anything, would be helpful for making them seem less like bare story functions and gag-delivery systems.
Instead, McCarthy, Falcone, and Mallory seem to be following Michelle's philosophy that people are just a useless anchor. The Boss introduces many characters that seem ripe for callbacks and story arcs — Michelle's sycophantic-but-fickle bodyguard Tito (Cedric Yarbrough), her disappointed mentor Ida (Kathy Bates), grimly brutal scout Chrystal (Eva Peterson) — and then apathetically drops them. And most of the characters the film do stick with are bare sketches. Kristen Bell, like McCarthy herself, is winning and charismatic enough to make her thin character appealing, even when she lacks characteristics beyond "single mom" and "too nice for her own good." But a joyously ridiculous scene where Claire tries to defend her saggy, comfortable bra, and winds up in a boob-jiggling fight with Michelle, is a flashing neon sign reminding the audience that Bell is funny too. It's unfortunately the only chance she gets to live up to her own comic potential. She's well-cast in a role that mostly just asks her to play the earnest, forlorn, ineffectual straight-liner. But at this stage in her career, she's earned better. And she's certainly earned a better love interest than Mike (Tyler Labine), a schlubby, amiable nothing of a character who hangs over the film's third act like a contractual obligation. He's the mooch at the party who wants to crash on the couch and finish off the last bag of chips instead of just going home when everyone else leaves.
There's nothing specifically wrong with Mike, except that Claire could certainly do better, and his mild-mannered gameness isn't enough to explain her interest. And that's the problem that runs throughout The Boss in general. McCarthy is still a raw joy to watch onscreen, with her don't-give-a-shit grin and her go-for-broke energy. It's a novelty to see her, however briefly, playing a wealthy, successful character, instead of a scrabbling working-class striver. Michelle's out-of-touch arrogance lets her play a more controlled, precise, sleek version of her familiar energy, and lets her access new gags about excess instead of desperation for access. For once, she doesn't feel so much like the butt of the jokes, even when her butt is filling the screen for a gag. But this time around, she doesn't do much to penetrate her character's bright comic surface, or to make Michelle into an actual person. She could do better, and it isn't clear why she doesn't. Given McCarthy's apparent affection for her underdog characters, it feels like she just has less sympathy for this overprivileged businesswoman, and less interest in her inner life.
And that only really matters for two reasons. First, McCarthy is better at digging for feeling in a raucous comedy than most people who try it, and it feels like a waste of talent to throw that away. And second, without even a hint of sincerity, The Boss' standard-issue aphorisms about how family really does matter wind up seeing disingenuous and even sarcastic. Like the "growing up is good" morals that always make an unconvincing appearance at the end of Judd Apatow films, or the syrupy sentiment drizzled over the end of Adam Sandler movies, The Boss' end notes feel fake and unearned.
Comedy bits like McCarthy's recent lip-sync battle with Jimmy Fallon certainly suggest that sincerity isn't a prerequisite of comedy. McCarthy does plenty of other things well, like projecting shameless confidence, oblivious happy excess, and a willingness to look ridiculous if it makes for a good gag. She's fun to watch onscreen because her characters so often shrug off judgment, meeting setbacks with enviable self-assurance, or at least the ability to bounce back fast and hard when despair sets in. But in a film that's specifically selling a message about sharing and caring, the emotional apathy is toxic and undermining. Melissa McCarthy is one of the few people who could have sold it effectively. It's disappointing, and a bit baffling, to see her not even bothering to try.