In her new laugh-in, “The Boss,” Melissa McCarthy plays Michelle Darnell, an investment guru with a motivational racket along the inspirational lines of Tony Robbins and Suze Orman. Wildly successful, Michelle fills stadiums with true believers who drink her snake oil by the tanker, cheering as she preaches the gospel of personal riches and the power of you you you, even if it’s really all about her her her. She’s peddling empowerment of a kind, as is this movie, gleefully silly froth that Ms. McCarthy sells with slapstick, you-go-girl uplift and a Kewpie doll smile that’s one twitch short of pure madness.
The movie is funny without being much good; mostly, it’s another rung on Ms. McCarthy’s big ladder up. It’s a fitful amalgam of bouncy and slack laughs mixed in with some blasts of pure physical comedy and loads of yammering heads. There isn’t much filmmaking in it, outside of Ms. McCarthy’s precision comedic timing and natural screen presence. But, as it turns out, sometimes it’s pleasurable enough just watching the most unlikely American comedy star since Bill Murray slip into a groove. Part of a sorority that is redefining what funny means in movies, Ms. McCarthy is proving that women can be comedy’s font, not just the killjoy who shuts off the tap.
It may be a while before Ms. McCarthy gets her “Groundhog Day,” though I like to think that the director Paul Feig (“Spy”) might one day deliver on that dream. Until then, she will continue to split sides and make bank, including in disposable, enjoyable nonsense like “The Boss.” It’s the second movie that she’s starred in directed by her husband, Ben Falcone, following the 2014 “Tammy,” about a sad sack who, after losing her job, sets off on a two-track inner and outer journey. That did well enough at the box office — Ms. McCarthy has become a Teflon laugh factory — despite being unworthy of her talents and despite the uneasy, unfunny jokes about Tammy, burgers and doughnuts.
Before it settles into a self-actualization fairy tale, “Tammy” touches on economic struggles that both connect it to the real world and suggest that Ms. McCarthy has ambitions beyond the well-executed pratfall. On its glossy surface, “The Boss” looks safer than “Tammy,” partly because Michelle registers as a more familiar, sellable caricature: the 1 percent meanie who needs a Tiny Tim to administer some emotional CPR. Michelle is plenty self-fulfilled when the story opens, at least professionally, as telegraphed by her bombast and an office stuffed with her framed portrait. She has issues, but money is just the gold that’s plating her wounded self (or something).
Money certainly isn’t a problem until she loses her fortune after being busted for insider trading. Written by Ms. McCarthy, Mr. Falcone and Steve Mallory, the movie tracks Michelle as she goes from penthouse to prison, followed by a life-changing stay with her wary former assistant, Claire (Kristen Bell, an appealing second banana), a single mom with a kid (Ella Anderson). There, in their cramped apartment, mother and daughter coax out Michelle’s inner softy, who, unsurprisingly, is nowhere near as fun as her outer meanie. Mae West once cracked, “Don’t marry a man to reform him — that’s what reform schools are for.” The same tends to be true about writing characters.
Michelle works best when she goes full-bore entrepreneurial hellion and hatches a scheme to sell Claire’s brownies on a mass scale, an enterprise that leads her to recruit members of a girl-scout-like troop and engage in corporate warfare with an amorous foe (Peter Dinklage). Along the way, Ms. McCarthy runs amusingly, at times dementedly, away with the movie, as when Michelle, while offering lingerie advice, plays with Claire’s (clothed) breasts. In its intimate physicality, this bit suggests a delightfully weird riff on a slap-happy Three Stooges exchange. Except that instead of smacking each other’s faces, Michelle and Claire are reveling in the comedy of the female breast, a routine that metaphorically whips the lacy, push-up bra off what is, of course, an ordinary body part.
This insistence on ordinary women with ordinary bodies doing ordinary (sometimes extraordinary) things, some of them very funny, cuts to the appeal of a goof like “The Boss,” which, even at its most familiar, feels different because of who’s inspiring the laughter and jostling those breasts. Given this, it’s worth remembering that slipped among the jokes is a story about two women who struggle with separate existential and economic realities and thrive in mutual dependency. In its arc, the story recalls the 1933 Fannie Hurst novel “Imitation of Life” (and its filmed adaptations), about a white woman who makes a fortune off her black female employee’s recipes and likeness. “The Boss” dodges race and puts a smiley face on greed, but it’s hard not to think that in celebrating female self-reliance, Ms. McCarthy — star, writer, producer — is saying a little something about women in the entertainment industry.
“The Boss” is rated R (under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian) for vulgarities and one purse-size gun. Running time: 1 hour 39 minutes.