Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Boss (Gary Sanchez Productions, On the Day, Universal, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Three nights ago Charles and I watched a surprisingly good recent movie, The Boss, the latest vehicle for the Saturday Night Live alumna Melissa McCarthy (as I’ve noted in these pages before, an apprenticeship on Saturday Night Live seems as de rigueur for aspiring comedians these days as a shot on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson once did). I’m generally not a fan of modern comedies — while dramatic films have benefited from the breakdown of the Production Code (but also suffered from it in that literalness and explicitness too often take the place of imagination) and action films have improved with the advent of CGI (even though a lot of the comic-book movies have action scenes that look digitally created and I sometimes find myself missing the craftspersonship of Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen with their stop-motion animated models), there’s generally no contest between the comedies of yore — the vehicles for Chaplin, Keaton, Langdon and Lloyd in the silent era and Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, W. C. Fields and Abbott and Costello (whom I wouldn’t have put in the pantheon but I’m getting to respect more and more as Charles and I work our way through the boxed set of their complete movies for Universal, which include 28 of their total of 36) — and the comedies of today. Still, there’ve been exceptions — Stranger than Fiction, Little Miss Sunshine and the amazing, unexpected Kabluey — and though The Boss isn’t quite in that league, it’s considerably better than the common run of comedies today. The Blu-Ray disc we got it on offered you the choice of the 99-minute theatrical release (rated R “for sexual content, language and brief drug use”) or a 104-minute unrated version, and I went for the unrated version and I’m pretty sure I know which scene they had to delete to get an “R” rating instead of the “NC-17” kiss of death (one in which McCarthy is shown spraying artificial tanning solution on her private parts).

The basic plot casts McCarthy (in a film directed by her husband, Ben Falcone, with both of them and Steve Mallory as screenwriters and the daughter of Falcone and McCarthy, Vivian Falcone, playing McCarthy’s character as a 10-year-old whose foster parents return her to the Roman Catholic orphanage from which they got her because she was too much of a bitch for them to handle) as Michelle Darnell, a Chicago-based female finance diva who’s a sort of combination of Martha Stewart and Suze Orman. She’s shown at the beginning of the movie delivering a live presentation of her financial secrets, flown in on a model phoenix (the phoenix, the legendary bird symbolizing rebirth, is her personal talisman) in a scene that reminded Charles of Fricka’s entrance in Die Walküre in a chariot pulled by rams, and reminded me of Liberace’s entrance on his final tour, in which he was flown in, Peter Pan-style, wearing a preposterous feathered costume that made him look like a giant angel. She then proceeds to deliver a lecture containing the usual “success” bromides, after which she returns to her office building and demands that her long-suffering assistant Claire (Kristen Bell) and her long-suffering chauffeur Tito (Cedric Yarborough) make sure she doesn’t have to wait for the elevator. If you’ve seen more than three movies in your life you’re going to be certain the spoiled diva is being set up for a major comeuppance, and said comeuppance quickly arrives when rival financier Renault (Peter Dinklage, Hollywood’s current go-to actor when they need a male little person, and especially when they need a male little person villain) reports her to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for insider trading. Unlike Martha Stewart, who in real life was able to take over her business empire as soon as she was released following a brief “Club Fed” imprisonment on a similar charge, Darnell finds herself wiped out financially since the SEC not only got her convicted but seized all her assets and left her destitute. With nowhere else to go, she turns up on the doorstep of her former assistant Claire, who has a nine-year-old daughter named Rachel (Ella Anderson) and has a shit job for a woman broker with all of Michelle’s unscrupulousness and bitchiness and none of her charm. Michelle moves herself into Claire’s apartment and even ends up in Claire’s bed after the folding couch she was supposed to sleep on buckles itself closed when she’s in it and throws her across the room (a gag as old as Chaplin, but still funny).

Naturally Michelle is looking for a way back into the financial heights, and she discovers it when she’s dragooned into accompanying Claire and Rachel to a meeting of Rachel’s Dandelion troop (or “troup,” as it’s misspelled on their banner). Helen (Annie Mumolo), the adult leader of this Dandelion troop, takes an instant dislike to Michelle and says it’s inappropriate for a convicted felon to be at a troop meeting — the fact that Michelle’s crime had nothing to do with kids doesn’t seem to faze her one bit — and though there’s a sad-faced troop leader named Sandy (Kristen Schall, who proves they didn’t break the mold after they made ZaSu Pitts), Helen and her “giantess” daughter are clearly running the place. Driven out in humiliation, Michelle decides to strike back. She’s got a secret weapon: a killer brownie recipe Claire makes for Rachel. Michelle thinks that she can put the Dandelions’ (read: the Girl Scouts’) cookie drive out of business in Chicago by having Claire make up packages of her brownies, which she renames “Darnell’s Delights,” and organizing the girls who are fed up with the Dandelions and want to make some money for themselves (Michelle has pledged that her salesgirls will make a commission on their sales which will go to help them save up for college) into a rival sales force. There’s a great scene which seems to be a sort of nonviolent (or less violent) version of the rumble from West Side Story in which Michelle and the Delights girls confront Helen and the Dandelions and win — and an even more fun alternate version of this sequence available as a bonus item on the Blu-Ray disc in which Michelle confronts a bunch of guys headed by a big, hunky guy named Chad (played, according to, by professional wrestler Dave Bautista — proving that these guys would actually be sexy if they weren’t costumed for their wrestling performances as if they were auditioning for Kiss), whom Michelle wallops in the nuts and then, as he’s cowering on the ground, asks for his phone number.

To expand Darnell’s Delights into a nationwide business Michelle seeks venture capital from her old mentor Ida Marquette (Kathy Bates, almost unrecognizable in a shrieking platinum wig), who helped her get her start in business and worked with Michelle until Michelle screwed her out of a deal. Michelle uses the money to take over a commercial kitchen in which Claire can bake the brownies, only just as the bigger operation is getting underway she spies Claire talking to her old nemesis Renault, and thinking Claire is about to sell her out to Renault, Michelle beats her to the punch and sells the operation to Renault herself. Then, in a sequence that probably had the ghost of Frank Capra smiling down from heaven and saying, “Folks, you learned my lessons well,” Michelle has a crisis of conscience and determines to get the company back from Renault by organizing herself, Claire and Claire’s boyfriend Mike Beals (Tyler Labine) — a nice bear-like schlub from Claire’s brokerage house whom Michelle encouraged Claire to date because she felt it was about time Claire started having sex again — to burglarize Renault’s building (“played,” ironically enough, by the Chicago Trump Tower with Renault’s name digitally replacing Trump’s) and steal back the one copy of the sales contract. Of course, Michelle and Claire end up with the company back, Claire gets Mike and Michelle gets Renault — she’s willing to forgive him everything because he’s so good in bed — and we get a comedy that seems, despite the “sexual content, language and brief drug use” that got the movie an “R” rating (the “brief drug use” occurs during a flashback showing Renault and Michelle as lovers before they became bitter enemies both in business and personally), surprisingly old-fashioned.

No one pukes or farts in this movie — which itself sets it above most movie “comedies” being made today — and aside from the Capra-esque finish one could readily imagine this movie having been made in the early 1940’s, with Preston Sturges directing, Barbara Stanwyck as Michelle, Joan Leslie as Claire and Claire’s single-parenthood explained by having her husband get killed in combat in World War II. (Stanwyck actually did play a Martha Stewart-type character in the 1945 film Christmas in Connecticut, but the gag in that one is that she was a columnist presented as a super-housewife but she really didn’t know the first thing about cooking or any of the other domestic arts — she got the recipes from a restaurateur friend of hers played by S. Z. Sakall and faked all the rest of it.) Surprisingly, one of the bonus items on the Blu-Ray disc is a tape of the original improv sketch in which Melissa McCarthy created the character of Melinda Darnell — and it’s surprisingly lame, which is a testament to the skill of her and her husband Falcone in developing a character who was just an avaricious bitch into one who had enough complexities she could sustain an entire 100-minute movie. The Boss isn’t a great film, and aside from a few McCarthy pratfalls it rarely had me laughing out loud, but I was amused throughout and some of the gags (notably one in which as part of the burglary team Mike is dressed as a phoenix, and the security guard turns out to be a Satanist who energetically engages Mike in a conversation about devils and thereby is distracted enough to let Melinda and Claire get by his station) are weird, audacious and beautiful. (There’s also a gag about which of the three principals — Michelle, Claire or Mike — is going to give the other security guard a blow job that’s just dumb and, as Charles pointed out, more typical of the Gay gags that got into movies a decade ago than what we expect in 2016.)