Published Jan 08, 2020On paper, Miguel Arteta's latest, Like a Boss, is full of great ideas. A film centred on the deep bond between two ambitious women running their own makeup company? Casting Tiffany Haddish, Rose Byrne, Billy Porter, Jennifer Coolidge, and Salma Hayek in this light, glittery comedy? Exploring the nuances and difficulties of owning a small business under the stranglehold of capitalism? It all sounds wonderful, especially from Arteta, who has directed some of the most interestingly offbeat films of the past 20 years, such as The Good Girl (2002), Youth in Revolt (2009), and Duck Butter (2018). Yet the film only ever seems to reach half of its potential.
Theresa Guleserian's production design is impeccable, nailing the chic minimalism of Mia (Haddish) and Mel's (Byrne) makeup store and the pristine, glossy, drone-filled offices of Claire Luna (Hayek), the multimillion dollar cosmetics mogul. Oddly, despite a few references to the fact that this story takes place in Atlanta, and besides a (disappointingly brief) scene where Mia and Mel sing karaoke at Lips, it feels like a non-specific location, a generic American city, which Atlanta is certainly not.
A nice touch, however, is the disparity between Mia and Mel's cozy shared home and the cavernous mansions where their wealthy friends live with their families, signalling the supposed choice women must make between artistic careers and friendship, or a life of practicality, money and motherhood (things that are, of course, not mutually exclusive).
Beyond the surface, the relationship between Mia and Mel lacks chemistry. Separately, Haddish and Byrne are compelling, magnetic performers, yet their dynamic often feels disappointingly stiff. There are a number of sweet moments, like when Mia describes the simple comfort of Mel bringing her junk food after her mom passed away, and when Mia realizes all the small gestures Mel makes for her, such as cleaning up the store or putting toothpaste on her toothbrush, but when the women describe each other as "their person," it feels unearned. Mel is quick to ignore Mia's warnings about selling out to Claire Luna, and reiterates numerous times that she feels she cannot speak openly with Mia. The film treats this as a mere rough spot in an otherwise wonderful relationship, but points to a disconnect between the two women.
Additionally, Hayek's performance, while certainly over-the-top, does not really land. Her orange wig and shark-like smile are hilariously off-putting, yet her eccentricities — random violent outbursts, carrying around a golf club, coining new words ("fierst") — often fall flat, as though Hayek does not truly believe her character would behave this way. The film could have benefitted from revealing her villainy at a slower pace, rendering her less of a cartoon and providing space for Mel and Mia to initially agree that Claire's deal is worthwhile and positive for their company, or else adding a layer of intrigue to the plot, which lays its machinations out from the beginning.
Supporting performances from Billy Porter and Jennifer Coolidge as employees at Mel and Mia's store, and Ari Graynor, Natasha Rothwell, and Jessica St. Clair as their exhausted, rich, married friends provide some of the most delightful and genuinely funny moments, from Coolidge's pronunciation of "spaghetti" to a baby shower cake shaped like a vagina giving birth to a fondant baby. Give an Oscar to Billy Porter for the scene in which he is fired, and demands Mel and Mia stop talking so they can "witness my tragic moment." This film is filled with good ideas and enjoyable performances, but its strengths never cohere in a way that takes it from just okay to something special.