Hollywood’s latest ladies-talking-dirty comedy is proof that simply acing the Bechdel Test is no longer enough — and that to make another winning Paul Feig or Judd Apatow film, you kinda need a Paul Feig or Judd Apatow at the helm.
But first, the positives. The two women at the center of Miguel Arteta’s Like a Boss, lifelong besties Mia Carter (Tiffany Haddish) and Mel Paige (Rose Byrne), are proud, liberated 21st-century women — striving and outspoken small-business owners with complete agency of their sexual habits and reproductive choices, with a generally healthy appetite for cannabis. Thirty years ago, such characters would more than likely be slut-shamed or otherwise upbraided by the studios’ patriarchal morality police; they’d be the first to die in a slasher flick. In 2020, their brashness is inspirational and aspirational. They look like your friends or daughters.
But even the copious talents and golden chemistry of Haddish and Byrne cannot wrest genuine pathos, sustained humor or even basic plausibility from a soggy script that adheres this slavishly to formula. To make matters worse, the film’s heretofore smart and enterprising director appears to have simply abandoned the set halfway through, around the time its laughs begin their inexorable decline.
Initially, though, most of Like a Boss’s ribald zingers connect, including at a baby shower with the protagonists’ more upwardly mobile friends, and at their workplace, shared with employees straight out of central casting but amusingly realized by Billy Porter and Christopher Guest regular Jennifer Coolidge. It’s R-rated sitcom humor, with rimshots implied, but for a while, it works.
Mia and Mel run their own cosmetics storefront, aptly named Mia & Mel, in Atlanta. Refining their business from its original garage startup, they’ve been gradually building a national customer base on behalf of innovative products like a “one-night stand” portable makeup kit for the lady who finds herself with a sudden opportunity.
But behind the scenes, Mia and Mel’s finances have been hemorrhaging, and Mel, who handles the books, can no longer hide the news from Mia: They’re nearly $500,000 in debt, and at this pace, they’ll be closed within six months.
Enter multinational cosmetics magnate Claire Luna (Salma Hayek), a not-so-angelic investor with eyes on gobbling up the carcass of Mia & Mel like the true vulture capitalist she is. Impressed with the ladies’ “one-night stand” and cognizant of their economic free-fall, she offers to erase their debt in return for a 49-percent stake in their company — with the caveat that if Mia and Mel’s business relationship splits, she’ll raise her stake to 51 percent and assume controlling power.
The fact that our heroines sign the dotted line without reading the contract, and are seemingly unaware of the transparently Faustian nature of the transaction, chafes against their business acumen, but it’s neither the first nor last moment in Like a Boss that strains credulity. Sam Pitman and Adam Cole-Kelly’s screenplay is an increasingly rote slog through dubious plot points involving recrimination and reconciliation, and along the way they forget to be funny: The movie’s big Bridesmaids-style set piece concerns the stealth deployment of food as a weapon, a sequence that trades cruelly in the comedy of humiliation.
But perhaps the larger disappointment here is Arteta, whose stellar track record includes not only the celebrated fin-de-siècle successes Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl but HBO’s sagacious comedy Enlightened and the effectively uncomfortable ensemble dramedy Beatriz at Dinner. Here, though, he’s worse than a director-for-hire.
The movie is lensed like a shallow reality show, so that by the time Claire subjects Mia and Mel to a live makeup competition fit for Bravo, the visual aesthetic needn’t be tweaked. As if sensing the movie’s diminishing returns, he allows scenes to peter off without a sense of flow or punctuation; the movie is like a jalopy running out of gas, chunkily sputtering toward oblivion.
That’s the irony, I suppose. For a movie about two characters so committed to enhancing beauty, Like a Boss concludes in a dire need of its own visual and narrative makeover.
LIKE A BOSS. Director: Miguel Arteta; Cast: Tiffany Haddish, Rose Byrne, Salma Hayek, Jennifer Coolidge, Billy Porter; Distributor: Paramount; Rating: R; Opens: today at most area theaters