In order to be a truly good comedy movie, there has to be more going on than just the jokes. From the structural and visual layering of Sherlock, Jr. to the angst-filled romance of Annie Hall to the self-aware ludicrousness of the character work in Step Brothers, these movies have more reason to exist than as simple joke delivery machines. Even Airplane!, perhaps the greatest comedy of all time, has a dull and shallow storyline for the very purpose of lampooning movies like it. This is why the later movies of Judd Apatow, like This Is 40, fail to connect. They willingly abandon their own momentum and consistency in favor of endless riffing. Ben Falcone’s The Boss walks a fine line. The characters and situations are so broad and familiar that most every story beat can be seen coming from around the corner. Yet Falcone isn’t phoning these elements in, exactly. He’s giving them just enough care and attention that they avoid being a distraction. The narrative is unobtrusive but sturdy enough to hold up the comedy, like the lettuce in a salad. And, in this salad, the other ingredients are pretty damn good.
Melissa McCarthy stars as Michelle Darnell, a woman who has clawed her way up from an undignified childhood as an oft-rejected orphan to become the 47th wealthiest woman in America. We first meet her giving an absurdly overproduced seminar on how to obtain wealth before heading home, where she displays nothing approaching affection for the only other people in her life, her assistants. These are the doormat, Claire (Kristen Bell), and the sycophant, Tito (Cedric Yarbrough). Right after Claire finally works up the nerve to ask for a raise, however, Michelle is arrested and sentenced to six months in prison for insider trading. When she is released, all of her possessions have been seized, Tito won’t return her calls and she finds herself penniless and sleeping on the couch in Claire and her daughter’s small apartment. Before too long, though, inspiration strikes and Michelle is rallying her newfound, middle class friends into a new business venture.
Essentially, The Boss is a vehicle for little else than McCarthy’s unrelenting comic voice. Luckily, she’s surrounding by talents who can keep up, from heavy hitter thespians like Peter Dinklage and Kathy Bates to terrific comic actors like Tyler Labine, Cecily Strong and Kristen Schaal, as well as very minor but rewarding roles from Margo Martindale and Michael McDonald (The MadTV one, not the Doobie Brothers one). Still, McCarthy is nearly always in the driver’s seat, so much so that aspects other than her character take on her qualities. Michelle’s scheme involves creating her own Girl Scouts type of organization and the results play like a brashly foulmouthed Troop Beverly Hills, if that film included its pubescent squad punching their rivals in the vagina. Since coming into her own in Bridesmaids, McCarthy has always fit best into the R-rated realm and this time is no exception, barreling ahead with profanity and vulgarity that only increases as it goes.
Perhaps, though, the uptick in swearing and repeated, explicit references to fellatio in the third act are an attempt to cover one of The Boss’s biggest weaknesses. As so often happens in studio comedies, the laughs start to wear a little thin near the end as the requirements of Aristotelian story structure bear down. We have to have the boneheaded misunderstanding that leads to the fallout between Michelle and Claire, the grand gesture to mend things and the heartwarming reconciliation (spoilers, I guess) so there’s less time for the inspired goofiness of earlier scenes, like the minutes-long sequence McCarthy performs with a retractor pulling her mouth into a horrifying maw (she’s preparing to have her teeth whitened). Then again, that also means there’s no room for the movie’s other letdown, CGI-aided physical comedy. Remember that awful airbag gag from Neighbors? It’s back here in the form of a temperamental fold-out sofa and it’s just as unfunny.
If there are any deeper ideas being explored in The Boss than the already noble pursuit of comedy, they will be found in the scenes in which Michelle is re-introduced to the world and lives of working people. When she’s released from prison and stranded on the side of the road having assumed a town car would be provided, it’s a laugh at the character’s expense but it’s also just one of many instances in which the wealthy are unable to function in the world the rest of us inhabit. The Boss addresses wage disparity in ways that are inelegant, to be sure, but sincere.
Even at its best, The Boss never reaches the heights of McCarthy’s collaborations with Paul Feig, like last year’s sublime Spy. But neither is it a sweaty, desperate mess like, say, the Pitch Perfect franchise. Falcone and McCarthy have landed somewhere in between and, with jokes as good as these, that’s good enough.