The search continues for a suitable showcase for the awesome talents of Melissa McCarthy outside of films directed by Paul Feig.
The latest vehicle to give it a try, "The Boss," has a promising enough blueprint for comedy. McCarthy plays the red-haired, thoroughly turtlenecked Michelle Darnell, a ruthless, self-made executive whose Martha Stewart-like descent lands her in white-collar prison. Penniless upon release, she moves in with her former and much mistreated assistant Claire (Kristen Bell) and her daughter Rachel (Ella Anderson).
But, as in McCarthy's slipshod road movies "Identity Thief" and "Tammy," the material here isn't on her level, the laughs are largely cheap and once again, the hall-of-fame comic actress is stuck in a minor-league movie.
Like "Tammy," "The Boss" was directed by Ben Falcone, McCarthy's husband and longtime collaborator, and written by them both. (Steve Mallory, who also dates back to their improv days at the Upright Citizens Brigade, also pitches in on the screenplay).
In both films, the premise is solidly rooted in the common frustrations of thoughtless bosses and dead-end jobs. Tammy's midlife crisis was partially prompted by a meltdown with her fast-food manager (played by Falcone), but in "The Boss," Bell's Claire is the one suffering under tyrants.
Michelle is introduced as the 47th wealthiest woman in America, a perch she flaunts as a finance guru. At an arena rally, she descends to the stage on a bird with dollar bills showering her. She's Suze Orman times a hundred.
Her downfall is plotted by a business rival, Renault (Peter Dinklage), who gets her locked up for insider trading. Claire, a single mother, finds another job with yet another uncaring supervisor (the underused Cecily Strong). But Michelle turns up on Claire's Chicago doorstep, looking for a place to stay.
The first sign of trouble in "The Boss" isn't the lack of a Bruce Springsteen cameo, but Michelle's first night on Claire's couch bed. When she sits down, the bed violently flings her high up on the wall, a crudely brutal, digitally faked moment of poorly calibrated slapstick that seems to exist only for the movie's trailer.
Other such bits crop up, like a tumble down stone steps by Michelle, that feel like desperate reaches for laughs. After attending Rachel's Girl Scouts meeting, Michelle hits on an idea for a homemade brownie operation that will teach young women more capitalistic ideals and give them a percent of the profits, too.
By even the standards of redemptive occupations in comedies, it's a thin concept. But Michelle's rival troupe of treat-selling girls begins to take off, bringing back all of Michelle's hard-nosed business tactics. A street fight between the girls follows, as does the expected lesson about family and generosity.
"The Boss" is tighter than "Tammy" and it's not without laughs. With few supporting players providing much humor (Kathy Bates, as Michelle's mentor, is entirely squandered), McCarthy shoulders the film. And she remains a captivating, unpredictable force in even a mediocre film, with a rare gift for both bombastic and humble characters, sweetness and crassness, physical comedy and verbal spats.
What: "The Boss." Directed by Ben Falcone. A Universal Pictures release
With: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Bell, Kathy Bates, Ella Anderson, Peter Dinklage, Cecily Strong
Star rating (out of four):
MPAA rating: R — restricted; under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian — for "sexual content, language and brief drug use"
Running time: 1 hour 39 minutes
Playing at: Beacon Cinema (Pittsfield), Berkshire Mall Cinema 10 (Lanesborough), and North Adams Movieplex 8