The latest Melissa McCarthy comedy, The Boss, is the sort of disaster you wouldn’t wish on even the worst movie star. That it happened to one as refreshing and funny as McCarthy is bad. That she did it to herself – co-writing with her husband Ben Falcone, who also directs, as he did her underrated Tammy – is even worse. The movie is a mess of squandered potential, with no sense of rhythm or timing, fatally hobbled by a completely unfocused plot, cursed with a scattershot tone and a complete inability to figure out what story it’s telling. It’s baffling how something so endlessly idiotic and catastrophically unfunny could happen to a talented comedian making her own role. She plays Michelle Darnell, a mean, short-tempered, delusional, narcissistic tycoon sent to jail for insider trading, then forced to work her way back up from nothing. This could be an interesting set-up, but the movie completely misunderstands McCarthy’s sweet and salty appeal, asking her to be both a relentlessly cruel insult machine whirling through every scene and yet still benefit from heaping globs of sentimentality asking us to care about this monster.
You’d think our current political moment would be great timing for a satire about a raging egomaniacal wealthy person metaphorically kicked in the teeth and forced to try to be a good person. In its broad strokes The Boss is exactly that. But it never actually figures out how to make Darnell into a character that makes any sort of sense, or how to make the story cohere around any sort of point. Is she the butt of the joke or the hero of the story? Is she the target of merciless class critique or a benevolent dummy who has had some hard times and needs our rooting interest through her every pratfall? She’s both an out-of-touch nincompoop in a fish-out-of-water comedy – crashing on the sofa of her former assistant (Kristen Bell) and completely misunderstanding the lifestyle of the 99% – and a selfish madwomen tearing through every scene creating more destruction – physically, emotionally, financially – than any other character can believably tolerate. No one knows what to do with her, on screen or behind the scenes.
Take, for instance, Darnell’s wardrobe. She’s always wearing turtlenecks with collars sitting snug just below her ears. That seems like a joke, maybe even a running joke. But nothing ever becomes of this costume choice. It just sits there, drawing a little bit of attention without turning into something entertaining. That’s the movie in a microcosm, which stumbles and flails for purpose. The story seems to skip a beat with every scene transition. Maybe it was hacked together from a pile of half-finished scenes in the editing process. One minute Darnell is ruining her assistant’s life, the next they’re starting a new business together. Sometimes we see a Girl Scout-ish troop, where Darnell cruelly terrorizes nice, clueless moms (Kristen Schaal and Annie Mumolo). Then Kathy Bates shows up for a moment on a farm. Then there’s a weird rivalry with a business competitor (Peter Dinklage) that turns into a last-minute heist. There is also, in a desperate search for more narrative, an underutilized rom-com subplot, a Gayle King cameo, strained misunderstandings, and a sword fight on the top of a skyscraper.
The Boss just doesn’t know what it wants to be. Characters change on the whims of the inconsistent tone, sometimes mean-spirited and nasty – like an over-the-top brawl involving 10-year-olds – and sometimes too sweet – like a tearful apology that’s supposed to be the emotional climax but plays totally false. It doesn’t help a borderline incoherent plot shoved into agonizingly conventional formula that the behaviors of people involved are completely unbelievable, even giving them the benefit of the heightened comedic doubt. There are several moments where McCarthy spits meaningless insults at characters we’ve hardly met, then finishes the scene by, say, falling down a flight of stairs or shoving cookies down someone’s pants. It’s just inexplicable, a disorganized, slapdash, inconsistent effort, stylistically bland to the point of madness, containing only totally unreadable substance. What an unfortunate mess, disappointing and tedious misery passing for humor. It’s not unusual for a custom-made star vehicle to crash and burn, but it’s pretty rare for one to run out of gas before it even hits the road. It hurts to see such likable people involved in a misfire this bad.