Given the brilliant reviews that Spy received and the brilliant reviews that Ghostbusters is likely to receive, it’s probable that The Boss will eventually be relegated to a misfire between two high water marks in Melissa McCarthy’s career. Along with Tammy, it’s turned out to be one of the worst received films in the McCarthy Renaissance, suggesting that the particular vision that husband-director Ben Falcone has of his beloved wife doesn’t fully correlate – at least not yet – with the version of McCarthy that the public has proved so willing to consume in the wake of Bridesmaids. After all, Bridesmaids introduced a very new version of McCarthy – something especially clear to Gilmore Girls fans – in the form of a crude, impulsive, explosive physical comedian who also happened to have a heart of gold if you caught her at the right moment. From thereon, Hollywood has tended to frame McCarthy within what might be described as humanising narratives, stories in which all her – apparently – repellent, pathetic or shameful traits are found to disclose an unexpected subjectivity, a process that found its logical conclusion in Spy.
Insofar as McCarthy has tended to elude this characterisation, it’s either been in bit parts – such as This is 40 – or in genre fare – such as The Heat, still her best film to date – as well as in the manifesto laid out in Tammy, Falcone’s first film with McCarthy, and a study in queer kinship, female friendship and feminist independence wrapped up in one of the best Fourth of July films I have ever seen. In many ways, The Boss feels like the spiritual sequel to Tammy, not simply because of Kathy Bates’ reappearance as something of a queer mentor, but because once again Falcone feels interested in presenting McCarthy as something other than a mere obstacle to be overcome. That challenge is all the more unusual in that McCarthy here plays possibly her most straightforwardly “unlikeable” character to date – Michelle Darnelle, a multi-billionaire and motivational speaker who suddenly finds herself divested of all her funds and sent to jail for four months after her arch-nemesis Renault (Peter Dinklage) exposes her as an insider trader. When she returns, she shacks up with her old PA Clare Hawkins (Kristen Bell) and quickly decides to make her money back by teaming with Clare’s daughter Rachel (Ella Anderson) and her local “Dandelion” troupe to build a multi-billion dollar brownie empire.
For the first half hour or so, it plays out as one of the more forgettable McCarthy comedies. Many of the scenes are very short, more like skits, while there’s not a great deal of connective tone or tissue between McCarthy’s one-liners (which are, as always, impeccable). However, that’s not to say that there’s nothing interesting going on, since if the film initially fails as a comedy it’s because it feels more like a full-blown satire. As Darnelle, McCarthy puts in one of her most soulful and complex character studies to date, especially in and around her role as a motivational speaker, but also – surprisingly – in her relationship with her past. Like all Hollywood billionaires, Darnelle has a moving back story – she was an orphan who never found a set of adoptive parents, and so was forced to subsist upon the affection of her Mother Superior and her first and only major business mentor in order to get ahead in life. For some reason, however, that story is peculiarly compelling here, not least because the nun and mentor are played by Margo Martindale and Kathy Bates respectively, in just about the best bookends to McCarthy’s screen presence that you could imagine, while ensuring that the queer kinships of Tammy are never especially far away either.
For the first act, then, I found myself wondering whether or not this might work better as an intensive character study than a straight comedy. In all of McCarthy’s roles, you sense a more soulful exercise peering out, and that felt consummated here, in one of her best depictions of isolation, frustration and perky attitude that I’ve seen. It was a surprise, then, when the second act of the film turned out to be one of the single funniest – possibly the single funniest – sequence in her entire career. During this section, Michelle infiltrates, mobilises and regulates the brownie troupe, and while it features all the plosive verbal delivery you’d expect from a McCarthy film, it’s somehow enhanced by the presence of the troupe as her captive audience. Put bluntly, the film is funniest when Michelle makes no concession to children, or what’s considered appropriate for children: she’s vulgar, she swears, she drinks, she fights brownie rivals and she always seems to be the purveyor of slightly lurid off-kilter spectacles, from a surprise screening of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre while babysitting Ella to ordering fugu at a Japanese restaurant and gorging herself to the brink of facial paralysis.
What makes these scenes so funny, however, is that Michelle’s rampage through the brownie troupe has none of the gleeful sadism of, say, Bad Santa – this isn’t malice but off-kilter oblivion, which has always been one of McCarthy’s greatest strengths. After all, if you are going to challenge Hollywood’s conception of female leads as thoroughly as she has, you have to affect a certain oblivion in your very screen presence, and McCarthy does that to a tee here, not least because she has the perfect foil in Kristen Bell to calibrate and respond to that oblivion. Indeed, part of what makes this the best McCarthy film since The Heat is that Bell bounces off her as brilliantly as Sandra Bullock, since in both cases we’re dealing with actresses who work brilliantly as straight women in comic films, since they both exude the kind of prehensile rationality needed to draw out an off-beat comic presence; at the end of the day, Veronica Mars is never too far away. At the same time, Bell’s own dry, studied acting manner makes McCarthy seem warmer by comparison too, until even her most ridiculous moments are cloaked in a warm charismatic glow that syncs perfectly with her first appearance as a full-blooded redhead.
Of course, the fact that there is no sadistic, cruel or misanthropic agenda doesn’t mean that these scenes in and around the brownie troupe aren’t as high-octane as you’d expect from a McCarthy monologue. However, the sum total isn’t crudeness but a more delicate sense of sympathy, connection and – yes – redemption than you’d get from a film in which redemption was synonymous with discovering or rediscovering maternal tendencies. For what is so surprising and delightful about The Boss is that while Michelle slowly but surely becomes a part of Clare and Ella’s family, she is able to do so without needing to learn some sanctimonious message about motherhood in the process. From start to finish, she doesn’t “get” kids – they feel like a different species, or a different concept from anything in her world – but that just allows her and the other two women in the film to build a new kind of family that never feels like a straightforward substitute for the mother than Michelle never had either. By refusing to “humanise” McCarthy in the way that we might expect, Falcone actually builds a more delicate, if more indirect, vision of his wife’s humanity as an actress. For me, this vision of McCarthy is so remove from Hollywood expectation – as evinced in the appalling reviews – that it almost invites the audience to engage with her as a kind of queer kinship. Certainly, every relationship in the film – or every relationship in the film that pertains to McCarthy – is queered in some way, from Michelle’s on-again-off-again romance with Renault, to her weird agonistic romance with nemesis Helen (Annie Mumolo, in a throwback to Bridesmaids) to her romance with Falcone himself, who appears for a cameo in the guise of her worldweary lawyer.
As a result, the satirical elements of the first act and the comic elements of the second act converge into a third act that occasionally appears like a regular Hollywood outing but always yearns to move beyond it. At the same time, it is in this last part of the film that the satire of American self-determination really comes into its own, as the brownie business truly becomes a billion-dollar concern and Michelle and Clare step up the recruitment drive. As Michelle, in particular, allocates, rationalises and distributes resources, the film feels more and more like a satire of an elite American educational mindset in which education has been collapsed into training, such that the whole point of the educational system, from kindergarten to college, is to prepare students for the process of recruitment. While Michelle may be oblivious in the way she carries herself around the brownie troupe, her real oblivion comes from the way in which she constitutes the troupe in the first place, and there is something satirically brilliant and pointed about the way in which she regards even the cutest and most bashful Dandelion member as a potential recruitee. At its strongest, the film manages to paint her as both oblivious and as the paragon of a new kind of free-market pedagogue, providing McCarthy with multiple opportunities for the kinds of insane disquisitions that she does so well.
At the same time, the fact that the film – and Michelle – identify so absolutely with this inane recruitment imperative means that The Boss is able to depict, evoke and enact productivity in ways that have become quite anomalous in a post-classical American cinema driven by downsizing, just-in-time production and dispersed casualised labour. With more montage sequences than I have seen in any Hollywood venture for a long time – but also refusing to treat montage as a nostalgic fetish – the film ultimately ends up enacting the motivational rhetoric that Michelle promulgates, which is perhaps why her opening appearance at United Center feels so galvanising and thrilling to watch. And perhaps the final trademark of Falcone’s direction of McCarthy is that this raw, anarchic energy so precious to her onscreen persona is never fully sentimentalised away, but allowed to hang, volatile, over even the most peaceful moments in the final scenes – a surplus of cinematic charisma that reminds us why she is one of the few film actors operating today who feel confidently and defiantly oriented towards the big screen.