‘The Boss’
Director:
Ben Falcone
Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Bell
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

Is wasting character actress Margo Martindale a sure enough sign that a film won’t live up to its promise? Did “The Boss” have a lot of promise to begin with? It’s a Melissa McCarthy vehicle, but Melissa McCarthy vehicles don’t come in one flavor. As with Will Ferrell movies, collaborators are key. Ferrell hits his peaks with director Adam McKay (“Anchorman,” “Step Brothers,” etc.). McCarthy has Paul Feig, who not only brings out her best — in “Bridesmaids,” “The Heat,” “Spy,” and let’s hope, his “Ghostbusters” — but teams her with ideal partners. McCarthy is very funny, but she’s even funnier when she’s ricocheting quips off a stone-faced, insult-flinging Rose Byrne.

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Ben Falcone is McCarthy’s other key collaborator, and not only because he’s her husband and father of their children. Two years ago, Falcone directed her (if that's the word for it) in “Tammy,” a ramshackle solo vehicle whose pleasures were a little hard to parse but were there. For one thing it betrayed a more vulnerable, even romantic side of someone seen most often as a sexless force of nature. For another it made plenty of room for Susan Sarandon as a movie-stealing grandma who’s gotta have it. (The two are 24 years apart, so it’s not mathematically possible, but whatever.)

“The Boss,” the pair’s second couples project, doesn’t fare as well. It’s more polished, looking less like a slapdash turd. The bar for well-shot comedy is set low, though, with the cinema of Falcone, and in comedy in general, meaning sometimes all he does is film his wife in close-up and ask her to make funny faces. McCarthy, who does have range, is in lovable villain mode, playing Michelle Darnell, "the 47th richest woman in America," with a pert red bun and yen for fur and ascots to show it. She boasts a cottage industry of industries, which implodes after she’s set up by an old flame/foe (Peter Dinklage) and jailed for insider trading.

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"The Boss" finds her trying to get back on top. Glomming onto her former harried personal assistant — Claire, a flustered single mom played by a likable if hardly thrilling Kristen Bell — Michelle starts off small. What threatens to be a movie where McCarthy bros down with a cute little girl — Claire's daughter, played with refreshingly non-Central Casting restraint by Ella Anderson — instead turns into Michelle taking over her Girl Scouts knockoff group, fomenting a mutiny when she learns how little they’re gouging patrons for their famous cookies. This eventually boils over into a violent fight in the Chicago streets between rival kids, which is funny, if suspiciously a lot like something Adam McKay, one of the film’s producers, did in both “Anchorman”s.

Watching McCarthy dismantle and destroy the genre in which assholes are de-assholed by annoying moppets would be a solid trajectory. But that's not what "The Boss" is about. Slovenly and undisciplined, it stumbles through go-nowhere plots before offering a half-hearted lesson about friendship and trust, which perhaps would be tolerable if it was actually whole-hearted. When all else fails, which is often, McCarthy hams it up or adlibs over copious rough patches. Failing that, it cuts to Dinklage, who, as in the worst Dinklage movies, is only there because short, Falcone and McCarthy think, is in itself funny. 

To her credit, McCarthy is game, and it can be a pleasure just to watch her do her thing. There’s a scene at the Girl Scouts meeting where she gets all up in the grill of an uptight mom (Annie Mumolo), firing profanities in a whisper so as to evade detection by the kids. McCarthy brings a balletic grace to her physical comedy, and this is the kind of scene you grab for the demo reel to show haters she’s no fluke. But most of “The Boss” is what you erase from your memory to maintain the illusion that her films don’t always stink, even when they get rid of Margo Martindale in the first five minutes.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge