One hopes never to have to tell a couple, “Man, that’s one ugly baby,” but it’s hard to avoid in the case of “The Boss,” the second big-screen love child conceived by Melissa McCarthy and her director husband, Ben Falcone (after 2014’s mediocre “Tammy”). As she demonstrated with her career-high comic showcase in last year’s “Spy,” McCarthy remains one of the funniest actors alive — a truth that frequently rescues, but doesn’t really redeem, this sloppy comedy about a ruthless, self-absorbed ex-CEO trying to recover her millions with the help of her former lackey (the always appealing Kristen Bell). As expected, the road to success is paved with violent pratfalls, tired vulgarities and forced lump-in-the-throat moments; save for the few folks who wandered in expecting a Bruce Springsteen biopic, audiences will probably lap it up.
As scripted by McCarthy, Falcone and actor-turned-writer Steve Mallory, “The Boss” represents the latest of the star’s mostly lucrative efforts to push back against the all-boys-club mentality of so much mainstream comedy. She has done this by filling the screen with a lively ragtag sisterhood (“Tammy”); by repurposing a traditionally male-centric genre with female leads (“The Heat,” the forthcoming “Ghostbusters”); and by slyly subverting the usual jokes that have attached themselves to her weight and appearance, as she did with her turn as an improbably gifted secret agent in Paul Feig’s “Spy.”
Michelle Darnell (McCarthy), a self-made corporate empress introduced as “the 47th wealthiest woman in America,” is nowhere near as interesting or layered a character, though she certainly makes for more rewarding company than the slovenly loser-girl types the actress played in “Tammy” and “Identity Thief.” A ginger-haired cross between Martha Stewart and Miranda Priestley (clad in a colorful array of suits, scarves, furs and turtlenecks by costume designer Wendy Chuck), Michelle apparently earned her fortune by being aggressive, ruthless and extremely foul-mouthed (the actual specifics are harder to come by), and as we see in the glittery set piece that opens the movie, she spends much of her time trying to instill the same greedy values in the future female leaders of tomorrow. But circumstances backfire when she’s convicted of insider trading and sentenced to four months in prison, then dumped back onto the streets of Chicago, homeless and penniless.
Coming to Michelle’s rescue is her former assistant, Claire (Bell), who reluctantly welcomes her into the apartment she shares with her adolescent daughter, Rachel (Ella Anderson). That Michelle will forge a bond with this sweet child is a given even before she starts accompanying her to meetings with the Dandelions, a Girl Scout-style troupe whose multimillion-dollar cookie sales immediately get Michelle’s head spinning: Clearly this pathetic little nonprofit doesn’t even realize the gold mine it’s sitting on. And when it turns out that Claire makes an irresistible brownie, Michelle urges her to quit her dead-end job so they can launch a baking-business venture that will make them both rich — and in the process, teach Rachel and her fellow troupe mates some valuable lessons in leadership, salesmanship and (inevitably) self-defense.
As demonstrated by movies as sweet as “School of Rock” and as nasty as “Bad Santa,” the gradual corruption of impressionable young tots by a jaded, cynical adult can be a fertile comic premise. “The Boss” takes up this tradition with undeniable gusto; there’s a certain pleasure in watching the formidably self-assured Michelle drop F-bombs in a room full of awestruck moms and daughters, or take a well-deserved swing at the Type A super-bitch, Helen (Annie Mumolo), who positions herself as a rival. And McCarthy, who can toss off an insult like “Suck my d—k, Gigantor!” and give it a vague impression of wit, coaxes forth just about every laugh and stray chuckle that could possibly have been extracted from the material.
Which is, in the end, a testament to McCarthy’s gifts as an actress — her irrepressible flair for physical comedy and her devastating way with a one-liner — rather than to her instincts as a writer, which seem iffy at best. The ostensible comic high point of “The Boss” is a vicious street battle that takes place between Michelle’s brownie-hawking girls (called Darnell’s Darlings) and Helen’s Dandelions, but it’s clear from the way it was shot — in uninspired slow-motion — that Falcone and his collaborators thought the mere idea of these girls slugging it out would be a source of endless hilarity. And maybe it is, at least compared with a nonsensical set piece that finds Michelle swinging a katana sword at Renault (Peter Dinklage), her longtime nemesis and on-and-off-again paramour.
Everything here — even the stray bits that come close to working — feels similarly arbitrary and unmotivated. Claire lands a sweet, dull boyfriend (Tyler Labine), perhaps to inoculate herself and the movie against the suggestion that she and Michelle might be more than just business partners. Kathy Bates rides by on a horse. The script, perhaps sensing its comic momentum is flatlining, drops in multiple pointless fellatio jokes, becoming even less funny in the process. McCarthy and Bell do get one amusing exchange in which a routine brassiere adjustment escalates into a lively bout of breast slapping — a pointless moment, but one of the few when “The Boss” actually works.