The trick to creating successful screen farce is to make sure audiences don’t see you sweat. So it’s not a good sign that the actors are spritzing up a storm in Like a Boss. But what actors! The comic tornado known as Tiffany Haddish seizes the role of Mia Carter, the creative wiz behind a DIY cosmetics company she runs with her numbers-minded best friend, Mel Paige, played by her up-for-anything costar Rose Byrne. The duo work their butts off for laughs that the putatively femcentric script by two first-time screenwriters, Sam Pitman and Adam Cole Kelly, ungallantly fails to provide. Ladies-gone-wild comedies can come up aces: Haddish hit the sweet spot with Girls Trip, as did Byrne with Bridesmaids. This film never comes close to that level of inspired raunch, losing steam through each of its meager but achingly redundant 83 minutes.
What a waste, not just of the two stars but of director Miguel Arteta (Star Maps, The Good Girl, Duck Butter), an indie icon whose subversive spirit is quickly snuffed by this slick studio package. Here’s what passes for plot: The boutique, known as Mia & Mel, reflects the philosophy of its co-owners, who refuse to push product by making women feel bad about themselves. Naturally, the company is heading for bankruptcy. Enter Claire Luna, the ruthless beauty tycoon (Salma Hayek, who lent a sharp edge to Arteta’s 2017 drama Beatriz at Dinner). Luna, who lusts after Mia and Mel’s signature product “The One-Night Stand Kit,” agrees to take on the hands-on boutique’s half a million in debt in exchange for 49 percent of the business. Her secret plan is to seize full control by turning the partners against each other. As if.
Cue an endless series of clumsily contrived situations that go completely against the grain of who these smart, independent women are purported to be. Having met in middle school, the two bonded for life when Mia’s family took in Mel, whose mom became a meth addict. Neither woman ever really grew up. At a friend’s baby shower, the two thirtysomethings sneak out on the roof to smoke a joint they had previously dropped into a crib with a baby in it. Their sex lives are strictly booty calls; they ride or die only for each other. Arteta put dark-comic bite into a similar case of arrested development in his 2000 masterpiece Chuck & Buck. But the writing here is toothless, with slapstick subbing for characterization — all the better to distract from the film’s hollow core. Why should these women actually talk out their problems when Mia can swing dangerously from Luna’s top-floor atrium and Mel can strain to yank her back in.
At the store, Mia and Mel leave most of the work to their only visible employees, Sydney (Jennifer Coolidge) and Barrett (Billy Porter). Coolidge’s blithe riffing is always a plus. And Porter, the Emmy-winning star of Pose, performs a one-man rescue mission on the script. The scene in which Barrett walks out on his bosses after Luna demands he be fired in favor of mass production, is an extended piece of knockout physical comedy.
Such moments are few and far between in Like a Boss, a title that makes no sense in context, maybe because the movie was called Limited Partners till the last minute. What we have here is a comedy on life support, with Haddish and Byrne valiantly performing futile acts of resuscitation. Sorry to report: The patient died.