“Bridesmaids” was rarely mentioned in last month’s wave of end-of-decade wrap-ups in the cinema. The 2011 comedy was no masterpiece, but at least it was a breakthrough film. With Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy in the lead roles, “Bridesmaids” broke the mold of comedies that have women as their stars, in an attempt to show that there’s more than one format. Since then, every Hollywood studio has tried its luck with a comedy that revolves around friendship between women.
“Like a Boss,” now in wide release, also tries to ride that wave. On paper, it has potential. The director, Miguel Arteta, has made standout indie films such as “The Good Girl” and “Chuck & Buck.” Two experienced comic actresses play the leads: Rose Byrne (“Bridesmaids,” “Neighbors”) and Tiffany Haddish, who just two months ago released “Black Mitzvah,” a standup special, on Netflix. And three fine supporting actors round out the cast: Salma Hayek (“Frida”) as a nasty tycoon; the excellent Billy Porter, who recently won an Emmy for his work in the television series “Pose”; and Jennifer Coolidge, a regular in the mockumentaries directed by Christopher Guest.
The story begins with a montage of the two best girlfriends in the world, Mia (Haddish) and Mel (Byrne). Photos and video clips send an unmistakable message to the whole audience, including those who have already nodded off: Mel and Mia are friends. The best. Friends. In the world. Period. They grew up in the same house, which they’ve never left, and now they share a glittering business. Under the brand name “Mia and Mel” they produce artisanal cosmetics and sell them in a store where they employ Barrett (Porter) as a makeup artist and Sydney (Coolidge) as a salesperson. There’s just one problem: the business is floundering and the co-owners are in debt.
Enter Claire Luna (Hayek), a larger-than-life businesswoman who has created a worldwide cosmetics brand and for some reason wants to buy the boutique store. Hayek, armed with false teeth, artificial lips and an accent even more exaggerated than usual, revels in the part of the wicked woman, displaying mannerisms that are occasionally amusing. She offers Mia and Mel a deal in which she will take care of their debts and become a partner in the business.
Her real motivation is a desire to turn the two against one another, though it’s not clear why. So, with no superfluous or necessary explanations, most of the film consists of an uninteresting plotline punctuated by minor spats and equally minor solutions, until finally the heroines realize that they need to combine forces against Claire.
There’s good chemistry between Haddish and Byrne, but they’re not given any comic tools to work with. Haddish is captivating and stirs empathy as the chief source of the gags, and Byrne understands her place as the butt of wisecracks delivered by comedians more talented than she, namely Haddish, Porter and Coolidge. But the whole capable cast barely manages to generate a laugh. The script, by Sam Pitman and Adam Cole-Kelly, does a major injustice to the actors. This is a comedy that is afraid to take risks, even small ones, and aims not to get anyone’s dander up.
The screenplay leans toward a particular genre of humor, mainly sexual, then seems to take fright at itself and pulls back. Over and over. The result is toothless conservatism. The few jokes that do work derive purely from slapstick. Possibly the humor would have been more effective if the writers had created human characters who might exist in the real world. But “Like a Boss” doesn’t have a single rounded character, only crude shadows of archetypes from past movies.
Mia is the creative one, meaning she’s a free spirit who enjoys mixing and grinding powders until the perfect rouge emerges. Mel, in contrast, is the feet-on-the-ground person, a numbers woman, meaning she’s naturally tight-assed. She’s the one who tidies up the house only so Mia can make a mess again. She even spreads toothpaste on Mia’s toothbrush every morning in order to demonstrate the depth of the friendship between them. But this gesture, like many other instances in the film, raises a question that has no answer: Why are you actually friends?
There’s absolutely nothing in the opening montage that shows why they are still friends. The script takes no interest in “why” or “how” questions, leaving the two stars to rely solely on the chemistry. But the two are not very convincing as friends, because they’re not very convincing as human beings. They function more as a tool to promote gags. Haddish has perfect comic timing, and Byrne is a classic straight-woman.
But without a decent script, they’re wasting their time on the screen. After failing to prepare the ground of friendship, the writers didn’t bother to figure out why it falls apart so easily. With just one sentence, Hayek’s Claire can make best friends hate each other, a development that undermines the little credibility they had. All of which raises another question with no clear answer: Why does a tycoon spend her time manipulating small fry?
“Like a Boss” is not a good movie. It rests on the flimsy foundation of an appalling script, and every attempt to build on it ends in failure. This is not a film to be seen in a movie theater: the big screen is not kind to it. It’s a movie that should be encountered only on VOD on a wintry night with no expectations, and even then the options are to be disappointed or fall asleep. Whichever comes first.