Thursday, April 7, 2016

Brownie Power: Melissa McCarthy on fire in funny-enough "The Boss"

The Boss (2016)
99 min., rated R.

If a comedy must deliver one thing and nothing else, it is laughs. An R-rated “Troop Beverly Hills” of sorts that trades Wilderness Girl patches for get-rich-quick schemes, “The Boss” does offer several big belly laughs, and yet they are almost always attributed to the film’s most powerful weapon: the robustly talented Melissa McCarthy. A film can always benefit from a strong performer but not always be single-handedly saved by him or her, but in this particular case, the degree to which “The Boss” actually does work goes to the actress who has paid her dues and shown the capabilities of her range. What it comes down to is pretty basic: if Melissa McCarthy makes you laugh, the film has done its job.

Raised in an orphanage and then bounced around from foster home to foster home for fifteen years since she was a child, red-headed, turtleneck-wearing Michelle Darnell (Melissa McCarthy) is on top of the world as “the 47th wealthiest woman in America.” She has built her empire in Chicago, and her success has made her a financial guru until being arrested for insider trading. After serving her five-month time in federal prison, Michelle must get back on her feet with burned bridges and no capital. With no family or friends to look to for help, she turns to her overworked former assistant, Claire (Kristen Bell), who now has a depressing cubicle job solely to afford a life for her daughter Rachel (Ella Anderson). Claire’s apartment is a tiny space for her and Rachel alone, but they welcome Michelle to live with them on a temperamental sofa bed for a short time. Though Michelle begins to fall into a freeloading slump, she then gets inspired when taking Rachel to her Dandelion Troop meeting and getting a taste of Claire’s homemade brownies. Assembling a new troop, selling treats for a higher price and making Claire a partner, Michelle might just get her chance at self-reinvention.

The character of Michelle Darnell was created for a sketch by Melissa McCarthy at L.A.’s comedy troupe and school The Groundlings. In re-teaming with her husband/director/co-writer Ben Falcone (he has his obligatory cameo) following 2014’s “Tammy,” Michelle gets a 99-minute expansion that is flimsy and unfocused in certain areas. (Perhaps Michelle is so rich and less attuned to regular people food, much like Megan Mullally’s Karen Walker in TV’s “Will & Grace,” but would she really be that unfamiliar with a “Dorito” chip?) To make us believe this woman could actually exist in this world, the opening scene of “The Boss” at least sets up Michelle early on as a belligerent foster child whom no one wanted, as it’s both amusing and sad when she keeps getting dropped off and welcomed again and again by Sister Aluminata (Margo Martindale). A performer who can be funny on command and then pivot to elicit emotion that never feels phony, McCarthy is on fire here as Michelle Darnell, who shoots off mean and/or raunchy barbs like it’s her first nature. Michelle is more of a fleshed-out character than a sketchy punchline like either Tammy of “Tammy” or Diana of “Identity Thief,” and what McCarthy can do is bring an earned heart to even a selfish, money-hungry female version of Donald Trump. Her whispered face-to-face insults with tight-assed Daisy scout mom Helen (“Bridesmaids” co-writer Annie Mumolo) are rudely funny and so very wrong, but her required falling-out with Claire is also more smartly written than expected, based more on character misunderstanding than strained plot misunderstanding (there’s a difference).

Kristen Bell is a forever warm, likable presence as Claire, and even if she’s not given as many chances as McCarthy to get laughs, she is more than game to take Michelle’s putdowns at her frumpy appearance and dish them out, too. There is a particularly hilarious scene, in which Michelle helps Claire get ready for her date and makes fun of her comfortable breast-feeding bra, that opts for optimum comic effect and allows both Bell and McCarthy to go just far enough. Ella Anderson, as Claire’s young daughter Rachel, is a natural without stooping to any kid-actor mugging, and Tyler Labine does wonders with a role that’s nothing more than a love interest for Claire as Mike, a co-worker who’s finally got up the courage to ask her out, but he makes it his endearing own. On a roll of bringing a deadpan weirdness to comedy supporting roles after 2015’s “Pixels,” Peter Dinklage does his thing as samurai-obsessed business rival and ex-lover Renault, who wants to bring down Michelle but still misses her body. The always-terrific Kathy Bates and the lovably quirky Kristen Schaal are underused, although a bit where Bates, as Michelle’s mentor Ida Marquette, says some not-so-nice words about Michelle in a video clip on Gayle King’s show is a hoot and it’s hard not to smile at Schaal’s Scout Leader Sandy mourning over the loss of her cat named Spaghetti at a meeting.

Director Ben Falcone can’t resist an easy sight gag, like Michelle with her teeth-whitening mouth guard in and having a conversation with Claire and bodyguard Tito (Cedric Yarbrough), that still amuses, but it’s some of the situational laughs that really hit. When Michelle sits down to eat a paralysis-causing pufferfish, her favorite cuisine at a five-star restaurant, with Claire and Rachel, the success of the scene is a total testament to Melissa McCarthy’s distinct timing and knack for physical comedy. A narrated visualization of Michelle’s mastermind break-in plan at Renault’s company is also a gut-buster. An outrageous “Anchorman”-like brawl in the Chicago streets between Dandelion troupes is so outlandishly violent and over-the-top that it borders on surreal and coming out of a completely different movie, but it's less of a miss than either of the jokes revolving around a deadly sofa bed. McCarthy's second collaboration with her husband is not another “Bridesmaids,” “The Heat” or “Spy”—the common denominator with all three is director Paul Feig—but it does a little more than the bare-minimum of what a comedy should do. “The Boss” is a better star vehicle than it is a movie, but it earns its laughs fair and square. As long as McCarthy is around, the jokes never dry up.

Grade: B - 

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