Big studio comedies have been having a rough go of things over the last few years. Maybe, it’s been speculated, they’ve struggled because superhero movies have sucked all the air out of the room. Maybe streaming has trained audiences to look to the small screen for funny fare instead of ponying up for it in theaters. Maybe it’s that humor, tending toward the culturally specific, doesn’t succeed in the international markets that have become increasingly important. Or maybe it’s because no one knows how to make them anymore, which is the kind of thought that crosses the mind when watching Like a Boss. The alleged comedy, directed by Miguel Arteta and written by Sam Pitman and Adam Cole-Kelly, has a cast so overflowing with talent that the fact that it’s so un-fun feels like its own kind of dark achievement. How do you make a movie with Tiffany Haddish, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Coolidge, and Billy Porter, not to mention Salma Hayek in full human-cartoon form, and have it be so devoid of joy?
Like a Boss, which is about two besties who live and run a small business together, seems like it might have started as a kind of homage to Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. That would, at least, explain the cameo at the end by Lisa Kudrow, one that’s presented as though it were meant to be a meaningful reveal and not, in context, totally random. The difference is that Romy and Michele were hilariously overgrown Valley girls and Mia (Haddish) and Mel (Byrne) are nothing in particular. They’re introduced as entrepreneurs who launched an Atlanta makeup brand together and as flaky stoners incapable of basic tasks at the exact same time. Mia is maybe the creative one and Mel is maybe the responsible one, but neither seems to really do anything when the movie begins — which would explain why their store is deeply in the red, but not why cosmetics mogul Claire Luna (Hayek) would try so hard to acquire them.
Claire doesn’t just want their company. She has a whole complicated plan to drive the besties apart in order to seize controlling interest. And yet, for a villain, Claire comes across as alarmingly reasonable compared to the film’s supposed heroines. Her evil schemes mostly involve tasking the women with putting on presentations, requests that cause them to immediately crack under the pressure and then rush to her office to demand their business back. Hayek, swinging a golf club and wearing an orange wig, seems to be having a good time leaning into the role of corporate feminist monster, but the movie fails to provide her with any actual jokes. It fails to provide anyone with any jokes. Byrne, with her deceptively great timing, gets stuck doing two interminable bits that rest on the lameness of her white-girl dancing. Porter, as a longtime employee Mia and Mel are forced to fire after the acquisition, ekes a few chuckles out of a scene in which he storms out through sheer force of will. And Haddish, one of the funniest people in the industry, works so hard in scenes (including one in which she unknowingly eats a dish full of hot peppers) that you start to feel bad.
Like a Boss may feel endless, but it’s only 83 minutes long, the kind of runtime most commonly associated with animated sequels for children that end with animals staging a rousing singalong to “I’m a Believer.” It’s hard to guess whether the story was mangled by studio reedits or just didn’t have much to say to begin with — both seem possible. The bigger question is why so many strong actors signed on for this misfire. Because as is, it feels like a film whose point is clumsily misunderstood by the very people who created it. And if that’s the case, how can they expect anyone else to find a reason to pay for a ticket to see it? There’s still plenty of time to save the studio comedy, but no one would miss films like this if they were gone.