By Andrea Thompson
Magic sparkle glue. That’s how writer and advice columnist Cheryl Strayed explained why her second marriage worked and her first one didn’t. Apparently, this ingredient was missing in the in the first, but her current has it in abundance. What exactly does this have to do with “Like a Boss?” Nothing. And everything.
The really puzzling thing is, “Like a Boss” has all the ingredients which have already become familiar. It revolves around a lifelong friendship between two women that is tested by something other than love interests. It’s led by two comedically gifted performers, with supporting turns from others who are equally skilled. There’s also an easily identifiable icy villain, complete with impossibly high heels, to stir up some trouble. So just what is different? What makes what should be just another forgettable January comedy that doesn’t even clock in at 90 minutes so memorable.
For starters, it has Rose Byrne and Tiffany Haddish as the lifelong friends Mel and Mia, who own a beauty company together. And the supporting roles are filled by the likes of Billy Porter, Jennifer Coolidge, and Karan Soni. For their adversary? They get Salma Hayek as devious CEO Claire Luna, who intends to steal their ideas and put them out of business. So the stakes? We’ve seen them before too, and they’re not exactly high.
How much we care is of course dependent on how much we’re invested in Mel and Mia, who have sunk not only their resources into their friendship, but the values of their friendship itself, and how they want to relate to the women who buy their products. Those products, which they produce themselves, emphasizes a lighter touch which focuses on individuality and making women’s beauty routines smoother and easier. Their opposition may be cartoonish, but it’s representative of a more traditional approach that involves catering to male expectations and covering up everything they perceive as a flaw.
Claire is also representative of a darker side of female power with a modern twist, one in which successful women climb on tomb by tearing down other women, all while claiming to empower them. Her strategy is to divide and conquer, disrupting the bond between Mel and Mia so she can take over their already floundering business. She believes that the money will change everything, but the pair’s real weakness might just Mel’s tragic desire to to cater to Claire in the hopes of regaining the maternal presence she lost out on twice, once when her meth-cooking biological mother proved less than up to the task, and again when Mia’s mother, who stepped in to do the job, died.
If “Like a Boss” was more willing to delve into this, it might be great instead of enjoyable. As it is, the focus on the deep bond between Mel and Mia, and the intensely believable chemistry between Byrne and Haddish, is done with the loving appreciation of a great rom-com, complete with a gratuitous karaoke moment. The two may be reasonably well-off, but they are also somewhat stunted, with Mel struggling to express her frustration at how they’re raising their business, which Mel and Mia outright refer to as their child at one point. That the two would get ribbed by their circle of more successful friends that make them feel poor is a given. But the questions are about children, not their relationships, and their friends’ partners are never even shown. Mia has a steady casual relationship with a younger man, but Mel only has a one-night stand with a guy who’s never seen again, and she’s not incomplete or even remotely interested in getting a love interest of her own.
Nor does the movie lack for it. When Mel and Mia experience that break in friendship we know is coming, it’s not surprising that everyone, from friends to co-workers, is deeply invested in them making up. Their love is about how best to raise the business they’ve lovingly built and created together, with Tiffany Haddish’s exquisite gift for physical comedy elevating all. Hell, even Billy Porter doesn’t overshadow her, and he even gets (and sells) lines like, “Witness my tragic moment!” So wherever that magic sparkle glue came from, here’s hoping “Like a Boss” got the patent for it.