Cast: Tiffany Haddish, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Coolidge, Natasha Rothwell, Billy Porter, Salma Hayek
Director: Miguel Arteta
Writers: Sam Pitman, Adam Cole-Kelly
The more time that goes by, the more bored I get with the slate of big studio American comedies that gets released each year. There was a time, not even as long as a decade ago, when the Hollywood machine would reliably churn out at least a couple of reasonably funny, broadly appealing, traditional comedy films, The Hangover and Bridesmaids for instance, and make a killing at the box office. Nowadays the best comedies being made in the USA are either indies such as The Big Sick and Booksmart or genre films like Thor: Ragnarok and Knives Out. There could be any number of reasons for this slump from the rise of online streaming services and Peak TV to the possibility that the archetypal American comedy is becoming a harder sell in international markets compared to the increasingly popular superhero blockbuster. Judd Apatow, when asked about this topic, has held that audiences always have and always will go to the theatres to watch good movies, so perhaps the real issue is one of quality. That’s a thought I find myself inclined to agree with when watching films such as this. Like a Boss, a Paramount comedy, is yet another of these Hollywood farces that takes on an ensemble of talented actors and has them perform semi-improvised raunchy bits in lieu of actual, substantive jokes. Words can barely describe how bored I am of these kinds of movies, but what the heck I’ll give it a go.
The film is about two besties named Mia (Tiffany Haddish) and Mel (Rose Byrne) who have known each other since elementary school and have been inseparable ever since Mia and her mother took Mel in from her broken home. The two have grown up together, but they haven’t really grown up all that much if you get my meaning. As adults they still live their lives as if it were a non-stop college party; staying up until the early hours, smoking pot, hooking up with young men, you get the idea. In between they run a mildly successful beauty company with their colourful employees Sydney (Jennifer Coolidge) and Barrett (Billy Porter). While the two are more or less happy with their shared life, they could do without the passive-aggressive disapproval of their family-orientated friends and the debt they’ve accumulated could ruin their business if something doesn’t change soon. Enter Claire Luna (Salma Hayek), a fashion and cosmetics mogul with a fake tan, tight dress, and oversized heels, to make them an offer they cannot refuse. Claire wants to acquire Mia&Mel, bring the budding entrepreneurs into her business network, and have them develop a hot new product. Mel is desperate to take her up and save their business, but Mia is less convinced that surrendering sole control of their company is a good idea. They soon agree, unknowingly playing into Claire’s plan to drive them apart and steal their business out from under them.
So that’s the premise for this purported comedy. It isn’t anything substantial but there’s enough there for them to work with that the movie ought not to lack for comic material. Or so I would have thought. Like a Boss barely got so much as a titter out of me because somewhere along the way screenwriters Sam Pitman and Adam Cole-Kelly forgot to write some actual jokes. Following the examples of Neighbours and Bad Moms, this is a movie that mistakes bawdiness for hilarity, obscenity for edginess, and juvenility with trendiness. Simply being vulgar is one thing, some viewers may well find the joke cake styled to look like a baby’s head emerging from a bloody vagina to be funny, but what made the film such a drag was how tediously lame it constantly was. One scene has Mia saying something to the effect of “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it” to Claire. She replies, “My head is not little, it’s just that my breasts are humungous”. Ernst Lubitsch would be rolling in his grave if he could read that line. There’s some potential for comedy there, as there is throughout much of the movie, but the writers don’t seem to care enough to so much as try and be clever or creative about it. All the humour amounts to is a bunch of single entendres delivered by lazy stereotypes with barefaced banality.
Well, not all; there are a couple of slapstick set-pieces as in one scene where Mia accidentally consumes some hot peppers, but they’re so one-note and narrowly-conceived that the actors have to muster superhuman levels of commitment in order to salvage them. Haddish and Byrne, the respective stars of the similarly styled yet infinitely funnier Girls Night and Bridesmaids, do sell you on their ride together/die together BFF chemistry but there’s only so much they can bring to a movie that doesn’t know what to do with them beyond their most surface-level comedic tendencies. Haddish plays the loud and boisterous one and Byrne plays the anxious and insecure one. Together they stumble along this awkward middle ground between being intelligent and talented enough to be competent make-up artists and designers while also being clueless and immature enough that they struggle with some pretty basic tasks. This clumsy characterisation is another reason why few of the ‘jokes’ land. Hayek meanwhile plays a stereotypical boss lady whose accent is made subject to a recurring gag and whose looks, not her confidence, ruthlessness or ambition, are made her defining feature (and not in a self-aware way either). Porter gets the biggest laugh of all in the scene where his character is fired, a “tragic moment” that he milks like the drama queen that he is. These are all actors who are capable of being tremendously funny and they deserve better.
To be honest we all deserve better than Like a Boss, a movie that operates on the assumption that there’s something inherently funny about women behaving as crudely and obnoxiously as stereotypical men. Whether it’s about men, women, or people of other genders, I’m tired of sitting through films that masquerade as comedies while refusing to put any effort into constructing their humour beyond having their characters act like reprobates and fools and spouting expletives and vulgarisms as if they are intrinsically funny in and of themselves. There’s even a cheap attempt made to pass this film off as some sort of coarse testament to the complexity and sanctity of female friendships, but it rings hollow in a movie that treats women as caricatures (for a truly profound and hysterical take on female friendships with Tiffany Haddish, go onto Netflix and watch Tuca & Bertie). This is nothing more and nothing less than the same tired comedy film that the major Hollywood studios continue to spit out year after year because they seemingly cannot think of any other way to make them. In the end it doesn’t really matter how much I like the stars, how harmless the humour is, or how funny these films can be at fleeting moments; American studio comedies have lost their way and I barely have the patience for them any more.