Tiffany Haddish, Rose Byrne and Salma Hayek glow up an otherwise-dire January comedy about fashion and friendship.
Ah, January — the wasteland for late-to-the-party Oscar bait and gag-worthy films whose studios have abandoned them. Seeing a new release this month is like playing a game of Russian roulette where five of the chambers are loaded; every once in a very long while, you might not get shot in the face. As critics, we do our best to stay optimistic, to go into something with an open mind. After all, it might not be so bad, right? But in the case of Like a Boss, not even rock-bottom expectations (and extremely overqualified leads) can save even the most well-intentioned female-led comedies.
Between the story and its $29 million budget, you’d be forgiven for thinking Like a Boss was made ten years ago. It’s got the plotless energy of a late-aughts Judd Apatow film, the breathless consumerism of a pre-2008 comedy, and the business savvy of You’ve Got Mail. But at least its central dynamic is refreshingly modern, centering on a pair of childhood best friends named Mel (Rose Byrne) and Mia (Tiffany Haddish) who’ve built up a modest makeup empire. They’ve got a neat little storefront, bespoke products hand-crafted by makeup master Barrett (Pose‘s Billy Porter), and a robust online presence that sells gimmicky ideas like a “one night stand” kit. Mel’s the sensible one, Mia the unpredictable creative type; you know the drill.
But when over-the-top makeup mogul Claire Luna (Salma Hayek, sneering through comical, Mr. Ed-style veneers) swoops in to offer to sweep away their debts in exchange for 49% control of their company, Mel jumps at the chance despite Mia’s skepticism. (And, of course, Luna has the larger plan to let the pressures of wealth and their conflicting directions for the company drive them apart, leaving her open to take controlling interest. Cue evil laugh.)
What’s most frustrating about Like a Boss is the lengths to which its three leads (and a few of the supporting cast) stretch to make this material work. To their credit, Haddish and Byrne have lovely chemistry that buoys much of the hokey material they have to stumble through; when used well, Haddish’s go-for-broke energy makes for uproarious viewing, and Byrne’s been severely underrated as a comic actress since the Neighbors films. Whether it’s a well-placed wisecrack, or Byrne’s effortlessly uncool dancing to sidle up to young women at a party to do some focus testing, the few things that work can be easily placed on their shoulders. Hayek is similarly saddled, her natural comic energies buried under kilometers of makeup (and of course, those teeth). Nonetheless, even the hundred-pound weight of these affectations can’t repress her ability to steal a scene.
But still, they (and Beatriz at Dinner director Miguel Arteta) can only do so much for something that feels so episodic and low-stakes. We’ve all seen this movie a million times before; we know that Mia and Mel’s friendship will survive, that they’ll defeat Luna at the big presentation, etc. They ostensibly have ‘competitors’ in the form of straight-dude makeup bros Greg (Ryan Hansen) and Ron (Jimmy O. Yang), who run a rival firm that reinforces ‘slut-chic’ makeup practices, but they barely register as a threat and are bafflingly sidelined during the big finale. Other supporting players get even less to do, like Mel & Mia’s group of supportive, obscenely rich BFFs (Jessica St. Clair, Ari Graynor, Natasha Rothwell) who do nothing but sip wine and host cooking demonstrations at each other’s houses. And then there’s Jennifer Coolidge as another Mel & Mia employee, who exists solely to spout Christopher Guest-ian non sequiturs (“You like this shirt? I found it on the chain-link fence outside the school.”)
Instead, we have to suffer through the same scene over and over again: Mel is cowed by Luna into making a heartless decision for the sake of the business, Mia brashly speaks her mind in protest, the two bicker, rinse, repeat. It’s funny literally one time, during a hard conversation with Barrett, and that’s just because it’s Porter’s one moment to elevate his role beyond the gay-best-friend archetype I thought we were all done with by now (His clap-punctuated cry of “WITNESS! MY! TRAGIC! MOMENT!” turns out to be the four funniest words in the entire film). At its lowest moments, Like a Boss rolls out the inventive, gut-busting chestnuts of “character makes their rival’s food too spicy!” and “character finds themselves hanging from a banner!”
To their credit, Haddish and Byrne have lovely chemistry that buoys much of the hokey material they have to stumble through.
That said, it’s refreshing to see a so-called ‘chick flick’ focused on a self-sufficient female friendship, without any romantic entanglements getting in the way. Apart from Jacob Latimore as Mia’s pathologically-chill hookup, these two are married to their careers and to each other, and the film doesn’t judge them for that. But there’s gotta be more to it than presented here; (conspicuously male) screenwriters Sam Pitman and Adam Cole-Kelly have little to say about the dynamics of female friendship beyond trite phrases like “ride or die” or “non-sexual life partner”, especially within the complicated auspices of the cosmetics industry. Hear that, girls? Turns out the right makeup kit can help you find (and keep) your #bff!
Great, funny comedies about women and the fashion industry can absolutely be made (and have been); you just won’t find one here. And knowing the incredible potential Haddish and Byrne have as comic leads (hell, this movie was practically summoned into the aether in the wake of Haddish’s star-making turn in Girls’ Trip), it’s especially frustrating to see them squirm under such trite material. Give them better movies, Hollywood — they deserve it.
Like a Boss slathers on some tasteful makeup and goes full #girlboss in theaters January 10th.