Film Review: “The Boss” and the Triumph of Neoliberal Postfeminism

I went into The Boss expecting to be hugely entertained by two of my favourite contemporary actresses, Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Bell, and I wasn’t disappointed in that aspect (for the most part, anyway). However, the film as a whole failed to hold together in an effective way, due in no small part to a rather cobbled-together script, and the more I thought about it afterward, the more unintentionally absurd the narrative came to seem. Even more importantly, I began to realize that beneath its surface message of female empowerment lurked an unfortunate reliance upon the neoliberal/postfeminist myth that the key to women gaining equality is through buying into the capitalist system.

The film centers around Michelle Darnell (McCarthy), a powerful executive whose financial success belies her troubled personal past, in which she was shuffled from foster home to foster home. When she is arrested for insider trading, she loses her fortune while her long-suffering assistant Claire (Bell) must find a new job in order to support herself and her daughter, Rachel (Ella Anderson). However, Michelle is not content with her lower station, and so she schemes with Rachel and a reluctant Claire to rebuild her fortune on the back of the latter’s phenomenal brownie recipe.

Even this cursory plot summary reveals the extent to which the film indulges in (and encourages us to indulge in) the neoliberal/postfeminist fantasy that the key to empowerment is not through challenging, much less overturning, the current capitalist system. Instead, women can gain empowerment if they are willing to  learn the rules of the system and play by them. This not a feminist utopian tale, but a postfeminist one, for the film suggests that it is important for a woman to claw one’s way to the top of the system. Even more bewilderingly, it only cursorily acknowledges the fact that women remain vastly unrepresented within the realms of business, and while it could certainly have attempted to address that in a meaningful way, it refuses to do so. (And let’s not even get started on the idea that we are being led to identify and root for a member of the 1%, in 2016, the year of Trump and Sanders).

And it is also worth pointing out that the fortune they manage to raise stems from baking. It certainly feels like the film wants us to see their claiming of the kitchen space as a site of female monetary empowerment as a good thing, but for me it just feels slightly regressive. Could they really not have thought of another way for the women in this film to make money?

All of which is not to say that the film isn’t funny (which is, after all, one of the primary goals of a comedy film). McCarthy, as always, delivers her own particular brand of physical comedy, though it is notably toned down from many of her earlier performances. I have always found McCarthy to be a tremendous and genuinely good actress, someone whose range is far greater than her material typically grants her (Bridesmaids, Spy, and The Heat being notable exceptions). Here, she actually gets something of a compelling backstory, as the introductory sequence makes it clear that she never had the family that she so clearly desired. Further, she brings a genuine emotional depth to this seemingly very shallow and unthinking character.

There is also an undeniable chemistry between Bell and McCarthy, and it is this relationship more than anything that provides something of an antidote to the film’s otherwise regressive postfeminist politics. The characters come to deeply care for one another, and it is their extraordinary bond that provides what little narrative coherence the film has to offer. Indeed, I’m not sure that, had it not been Bell and McCarthy in the lead roles, the film would succeed even as much as it does.

The film does have some other very notable flaws. While Peter Dinklage is undeniably one of today’s finest actors, he is criminally misused in this film, relegated to a frankly pretty absurd and not at all compelling caricature of his usual roles. To my mind, it’s actually almost criminal how much his talent is wasted in this film, proof that, until better film scripts come his way, he should stick with Game of Thrones or risk having his (well-deserved) reputation as a genuinely good actor tarnished.

The greatest failing of The Boss, however, is its script. There are parts of that simply do not make sense, and the film attempts to paper over them with thin threads of narrative causality. Again, McCarthy can largely keep this train rolling along on her own, but there are even aspects of her character and her decisions that don’t entirely make sense. And the final “action” sequence in which the heroines manage to recapture a contract is absurd (and not in the good, clever way) right down to its roots. One wonders whether the screenwriters had ever read even the most basic guide on plot and narrative coherence (the answer is clearly no).

The Boss is an incredibly flawed film, both in its plot and in its politics. Nevertheless, it is amusing, so if you can bring yourself to ignore the negative parts of the film, it is worth watching. Hopefully, though, McCarthy, Bell, et al will be able to find a stronger film for their considerable talents on their next outing.

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One comment

  1. B Noir Detour · May 29, 2016

    Compelling review. Well written, persuasive, and unfortunate. I like McCarthy very much, but I’d enjoy her even more in well-written work. At least Spy toyed with the sexism of the James Bond image and the relegation of women to support roles. Ah well, too rare that comedy has a good bite these days.

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