Melissa McCarthy deserves a promotion

Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Bell in The Boss

Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Bell in The Boss

Director: Ben Falcone. Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Bell, Peter Dinklage, Ella Anderson, Tyler Labine, Kathy Bates, Cecily Strong, Mary Sohn, Kristen Schaal, Eva Peterson, Timothy Simons. 15 cert, 99 minsMelissa McCarthy makes a lot of individual moments in her new big-business comedy, The Boss, fly pretty well. She’s the kind of performer who can surprise you even when you’ve given up on a scene – when it’s not going anywhere – as if she senses instinctively that some fresh burst of ex machina inspiration is needed, and quick.

Boy, is that a necessary skill set in this thing. The second of McCarthy’s vehicles to be directed by her husband, Ben Falcone, The Boss is a sketchpad for a character masquerading as a movie. Like their previous collaboration, Tammy, it lurches ahead into its story with no clear idea of what we’re meant to be investing in.

McCarthy’s character, a take-no-prisoners businesswoman called Michelle Darnell, is entirely ghastly, and meant to be: the film’s only recourse is stacking her up against rivals who are even less likeable.

The trouble is, they’re much less funny, too. They include a frankly desperate Peter Dinklage, as a bitter tycoon called Renault, who turns out to be the former paramour Michelle clambered all over to get ahead.

Wearing a feathered, redhead power coiff and the kind of chin-skimming turtlenecks Katharine Hepburn started adopting in the 1960s, Michelle starts the film as bitch-queen of her corporate domain, before a malicious tip-off from Renault gets her arrested, and briefly jailed, for insider trading.

Melissa McCarthy in The Boss

She emerges with her assets stripped, and there’s nothing for it but to shack up with her former PA (Kristen Bell), a long-suffering doormat with a daughter in a Girl Scouts group.

Commandeering this organisation to turn it into a ruthless profit machine – they start selling Bell’s home-baked brownies with the zeal of Jehovah’s Witnesses – is the script’s idea of an entire second act. But it’s a rotten one, gaining the film almost nothing in terms of driving things to a point, or developing the characters in any productive way.

The Boss

Essentially playing straight man, Bell is often a real help – the scene where she and McCarthy score entirely breast-related points off each other deserves to stand in isolation as a classic McCarthy riff. It’s worthy of her cop comedy The Heat, with Bell’s meek homebody stepping in for Sandra Bullock.

But The Boss entirely lacks The Heat’s consistency as a pas de deux, or the amiability of the supporting turns in Spy, or any redemptive feminist message that doesn’t feel groanworthily obligatory and grafted on. There’s not much for it here except choosing to be a barracuda in a man’s world, then apologising for that stance.

This time out, McCarthy is stranded, salvaging only what she can through the stray excellence of her timing, which is more or less infallible. But she needs writing that’s as sharp as she is, and ideas that don’t feel scraped up dubiously from the slush pile.

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