With the low-budget comedy “The Boss of It All,” Danish helmer Lars von Trier takes a break from the international casts, bare-stage aesthetic and the self-described “sermonizing” of his past two features, “Manderlay” and “Dogville.” Plot, about an actor hired to impersonate a fictional company owner to help the real proprietor sell the firm, shares thematic DNA with much of von Trier’s earlier work. Tone, however, is so breezy an exit-door draft could blow it off the screen. Theatrically, “Boss” will make negligible profits, even locally, but it should pay its way on ancillary with sales to von Trier completists.
Opening crane shot scans the outside of an office block in an unnamed Danish town. In the windows, the helmer himself is visible behind the camera rig. “You can see my reflection,” intones von Trier’s voiceover. “But this film won’t cause you more than a moment’s reflection.” Indirectly acknowledging that auds and critics might have found some of his earlier films heavy weather, helmer promises that this one is “a comedy, but harmless as such.”
In fact, the humor has some bite. Those aware of von Trier’s rocky relationships with actors on past pics (Bjork in “Dancer in the Dark,” Nicole Kidman in “Dogville”) could easily read this one as an allegory of the mind games helmers play with their actors, as well as a send-up of thespian pomposity. More industry-savvy auds may read pic as a good-humored spoof of von Trier’s relationship with his longserving producer and biz-partner Peter Albaek, with all the good cop/bad cop role-playing involved in running a company.
For years, company director Ravn (Peter Gantzler) has let his staff think the firm has a perpetually absent “boss of it all” named Svend E., who makes all the unpopular decisions. He communicates his desires, and sometimes conducts whole long-distance relationships with the staff, via email.
Ravn now wants to sell the company to temperamental Icelander Finnur (helmer Fridrik Thor Fridriksson), but Finnur will only do business with Svend.
To nail the deal, Ravn hires small-time legit thesp Kristoffer (Jens Albinus) to incarnate Svend for just one meeting with Finnur and his interpreter (Benedikt Erlingsson). However, Kristoffer’s overacting, and announcement that he’s given Ravn power of attorney, annoys Finnur so much he walks out. Finnur insists Kristoffer/Svend must be the one who signs the papers in a week’s time.
Caught up in his role, Kristoffer introduces himself as the boss to some of the company staff — which means he’ll have to go through with the charade for the next week. Afraid of confrontation, Ravn throws Kristoffer in the deep end without telling him anything about his “character” (as the thesp insists on calling the Svend fiction).
This leads to a series of amusing skits as Kristoffer struggles to keep up the pretence when he meets the company’s six founding members. Pic starts to enter realm of screwball comedy when Finnur’s lawyer shows up. She just happens to be Kristoffer’s ex-wife, Kisser (Sofie Grabol).
At Copenhagen fest preem, helmer semi-joked he’s been remaking the same story throughout his career, one in which an idealist enters a situation and then screws it all up through good intentions. On the surface, “Boss” looks different from the highly stylized pics that von Trier is best known for. But pic’s storyline fits the above template as Kristoffer wreaks havoc through his commitment to his craft and his growing belief that Ravn is not treating his staff right.
With its Danish setting, naturally-lit look and theater-workshop vibe, pic most resembles von Trier’s “The Idiots,” in which a group of anarchists pretended to be mentally deficient to confront suburbia. Albinus played the group’s ringleader, also named Kristoffer, in “The Idiots.”
Actors seem to be enjoying themselves, and display sharp yet underplayed comic timing, with Albinus and Gantzler making a likeable double-act. English-speaking auds will see some similarities with the TV series “The Office,” although von Trier claims never to have seen the show.
Pic is being marketed as the fruit of von Trier’s recently announced aim “to reduce the scope of productions in regard to funding, technology, the size of crew and particularly casting.” But it still showcases his liking for tech-tinkering, here by using a new camera system, Automavision, which gets pic’s sole credit for cinematography.
Process involves a camera’s tilt, pan, focal length and/or positioning being randomly offset by a computer. A similar randomization applies to the sound recording. Result is a lot of off-kilter compositions, sometimes with subjects’ heads at the bottom or side of the screen. This just about fits the material, creating a comic, world-out-of-joint atmosphere.
Likewise, editing credited to Molly M. Stensgaard and supervised by von Trier favors constant jump cuts, creating a jittery effect that some motion-sensitive auds might find disconcerting. Blowup from 16mm is OK.
For all its slightness, pic is helmer’s least pretentious and most sheerly enjoyable for years, despite its very limited commercial appeal.