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The Boss review: Melissa McCarthy is one of our finest comic actors. Her new movie totally wastes her.

It feels like five movies stitched together into one.

The Boss
Melissa McCarthy plays Michelle Darnell, a former kingpin who longs to get back on top, in The Boss.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Melissa McCarthy has reached the point Bill Murray was at in the 1980s and Jim Carrey was at in the 1990s, where the entire premise of a film can be, "Wouldn't you like to see this actor playing this particular part?" — and so long as the answer is "yes," it will work.



The Boss, if nothing else, proves this. It doesn't have a story beyond, "What if Melissa McCarthy played the boss?" That it almost succeeds is a testament to her strengths as a performer and the rest of the game ensemble cast.

That it ultimately doesn't is testament to just how hard it's always been to write good scripts for these sorts of movies. Here's the good, bad, and weird of The Boss.

Good: Melissa McCarthy really does make a good boss

Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Bell in The Boss
The scenes where Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Bell just hang out are often fun.

McCarthy's Michelle Darnell is a woman who hit the heights of the Fortune 500, only to watch everything crumble beneath her when a corporate rival found a way to make her take the fall for insider trading. Now, vaguely chastened and without a penny to her name, she's forced to move in with a former employee played by Kristen Bell.

As we'll discuss in a bit, there's very little about Michelle that makes any sense whatsoever. The Boss alters her character depending on the needs of whatever scene she's in, and she vacillates between protagonist, antagonist, and broad comic support. That might sound like the basis for a well-rounded character, but ... it's not.

Still, there's a reason McCarthy's movies always make money. She's an effortlessly funny performer when she's in her wheelhouse — which seems to be expressing genuine concern for those she cares about while balancing the more emotional moments with ridiculousness and slapstick. Whenever The Boss just settles in and lets McCarthy be McCarthy, it's a much better movie.

Director Ben Falcone (who's also McCarthy's husband) is content in these scenes to step back and watch as, say, she dons a silly-looking mouthpiece to have her teeth cleaned by her employees or gets into a boob-slapping fight with her new roommate. Like a lot of great physical comedians, McCarthy is most at home in wide shots, where she can more effectively ply her trade.

And it all kinda works here and there, provided you're willing to accept The Boss as a series of comedic sketches, only loosely connected by a plot. Do we really want to see McCarthy lead a bunch of off-brand Girl Scouts into battle against a different band of off-brand Girl Scouts? The answer turns out to be yes, or at least it would be if the movie did a better job of executing that idea.

Bad: The story feels like five drafts of five different scripts awkwardly pasted together

Here are just a few of the storylines The Boss plays around with, without really connecting them to each other:

  • Michelle, who was raised in an orphanage, learns to love again, thanks to her new surrogate family of co-workers and off-brand Girl Scouts.
  • Single mother Claire (Bell) tries to put up with her overbearing boss, who's quite possibly the worst person alive. After Michelle goes to jail, Claire still somehow has to pick up after the woman.
  • Michelle has a longtime rivalry with a man named Renault (Peter Dinklage), a former lover turned corporate enemy who is hell-bent on bringing her down.
  • Michelle tires of the way the off-brand Girl Scout troop that Claire's daughter belongs to isn't training young women to succeed in business. She sets up her own off-brand Girl Scout troop to teach cutthroat practices.
  • Michelle tries to claw her way back to the top of the pyramid after being knocked to the very bottom.

Also, for some reason, there are brief subplots featuring characters played by Tyler Labine and Kathy Bates, actors who are famous enough that it seems safe to assume most of what they filmed ended up on the cutting room floor, especially since Labine is vital to the film's climax.

Of course, all movies can and should pursue multiple storylines that run in tandem. And plenty of the storylines listed above could work together beautifully. But The Boss frequently forgets about some of them, before abruptly shifting gears when, say, it's time to bring back Dinklage for a scene or two.

That last story — about Michelle's big comeback in the corporate world — is the closest thing the film has to a spine. But because the early scenes of Michelle at the height of her professional career portray her as a bit of an antagonist to Claire, there's no real drive to get her back to where she was. Consequently, The Boss feels like it's constructed primarily out of studio notes.

Good: McCarthy practices a (mostly) cruelty-free brand of comedy

The Boss
Michelle Darnell is having a good time in jail.

Yeah, McCarthy's biggest shtick is the broadest of broad physical comedy, but her films — and it's safe to say she has a creative say in them, thanks to how often she contributes to their scripts or works on them as a producer — boast a refreshing lack of making fun of people for how they look. Her jokes are mostly based in human foibles, and that's a nice change from many mainstream comedies.

All of that said, there's still a very strange streak of mean humor in McCarthy's work, even if it's not based on physical traits. Annie Mumolo appears in The Boss, for instance, as yet another antagonist, someone whom Michelle instantly clashes with the second they meet at one of those off-brand Girl Scout meetings.

It's by far the least funny portion of the film. Why does Michelle hate this woman? It's never explained beyond, "Maybe Michelle and this random mother have it out for each other, because that could be funny?" Meanness doesn't suit McCarthy in the same way that slapstick does. She's more about laughing with than laughing at.

Bad: The state of the mainstream comedy film

Every year, without fail, there are at least a couple of new comedies that are actually funny. But for the most part, they tend to be short collections of very loosely connected sketches. They don't tell stories so much as they set up generic comedic situations for people to pratfall their way through — like supersize I Love Lucy episodes, but without that show's awareness that 25 minutes of Lucy per week was all you really need.

Plenty of funny comedies have followed this loose, sketch-like format over the years, but it's much tougher to construct a comedy classic in this vein, because while you might remember some of the film's biggest laughs, you likely won't remember the characters or the story. It's a recipe for a movie that evaporates the second it's over at best, and one that makes no sense (as The Boss doesn't) at worst.

There's a compelling idea, a compelling set of characters, and a compelling story hidden somewhere in the middle of The Boss. But those elements are too often neglected, resulting in a film that feels like one of those Saturday Night Live character spinoff movies, but for a Saturday Night Live character who never existed.

Weird: The Boss is about taking down the Girl Scouts

The Boss

Yeah, the movie goes out of its way to insist that its Girl Scout-esque organization isn't really the Girl Scouts. But said organization commands millions of members, and it makes most of its money via cookie sales.

The Boss's central argument against this organization is that it's not feminist enough, that it doesn't really try to help young girls grow up into strong, confident women, who will be ready to take on any tasks that life dishes out. Regardless of how you feel about the Girl Scouts, debunking their stated purpose is a really weird objective for the major subplot of a movie.

I'm willing to bet this storyline exists in The Boss because the thought of McCarthy leading a small army of girls made for a great image. And at many times, it does! But the notion behind "Darnell's Darlings" (the group Michelle sets up to fight back against the original off-brand Girl Scouts group) never has enough breathing room to just have fun with McCarthy as a Girl Scout troop leader. Instead, The Boss tries to do five or six other, different things.

And that's the movie in a nutshell: a messy grab bag of potentially fun (if weird) ideas defeated by a lack of throughlines and competing too-short attention spans. Too bad.

The Boss is playing throughout the country.