The Boss is not actually good. Melissa McCarthy is actually great in it, however, and that provides enough cover for the film as a whole to achieve some kind of simulation of goodness. Or to put it another way, I laughed, and I laughed often enough to conclude that it was a worthwhile comedy, however many borderline-crippling flaws it has here, there, and most places. This is obviously a viciously narrow way to praise a film, but comedy is a tricky beast to get a handle on.

The film's hook - calling it a "plot" would be a kindness - is that a certain Michelle Darnell (McCarthy), the 47th-wealthiest woman in America (this says more about me than the movie, but it was that "47th" that made me start to feel good about where things were going: extreme specificity is an underrated source of strength in comedy writing), is an abusive, vulgar tyrant, who treats her long-suffering assistant Claire (Kristen Bell) with extra contempt on top of what she doles out to everyone else. Then she's nabbed by the federal government for insider trading. Reduced to destitution, a post-prison Michelle has nowhere to stay but Claire's couch, and it's from here that she discovers the world of girl scout cookies (but not, in a no-doubt legally-mandated dodge, "Girl Scout" cookies), thanks to Claire's daughter Rachel (Ella Anderson). Discovering as well that Claire has a killer brownie recipe, Michelle reinvents herself as the authoritarian leader of Darnell's Darlings, an empire of adolescent and pre-adolescent girls selling brownies throughout Chicago (a city where it frankly makes no sense to set any part of this narrative, but McCarthy's from there, and it results in some great location shooting). And it is thus that Michelle will restore her former fortune.

The film is actually about watching McCarthy curse and fume at Bell, or whatever other actor comes over for a scene or two; The Boss has a bad habit of dragging in talented performers to do very little, including Margo Martindale, Kathy Bates, and Kristen Schaal (the last of whom is completely wasted in her two humorless scenes). Mostly McCarthy and Bell, though, and that's a strong enough pairing for the film to generally keep its head above water: playing the straight man is by no stretch of the imagination the best use of Bell's talents, but it's not like she's been getting any better movies roles, and she does have pretty much note-perfect timing for playing against McCarthy's demolishing whirlwind of a character. Not something to take for granted, a good straight man. But anyway, this is all about McCarthy, of course, and she holds nothing back. It's been at least since The Heat that she has been, herself, so invested in a part (Spy is of course a better film overall than The Boss, but by no means is McCarthy the best part of Spy), and while frequent stretches of the movie consist of not one blessed thing past "McCarthy spews imaginative, startlingly mean insults", the passion she has for spewing them is pure and true and intense; it radiates off the screen. And when the film goes increasingly silly - a long riff on Doritos, a climactic sword fight - she gives in to silliness completely, in the most generous and ebullient way.

As for everything around that central dynamic; ah, well. This is the second film directed by Ben Falcone, McCarthy's husband, and the second film they've written together (this time bringing along first-timer Steve Mallory to help with the screenplay), and while two features may not be enough to start making grand statements, the evidence seems to favor the idea that they ought to stop. The Boss is by every imaginable yardstick a better film than Tammy, their other collaboration, but it shares a lot of that film's signature flaws: long dead spots, a forced Let's Learn Lessons ending that's as insincere as it is trite, and above all else, a curiously dark hatred for McCarthy's character. She's a much better comedian than doing the whole fatty-fall-down bit, as can be seen in any of her collaborations with Paul Feig; there's something magically off-putting about how the films she and her husband have tailor-made to fit her talents and their interests go all-in on that kind of material. Michelle is knocked down a flight of stairs; Michelle is knocked into a pile of garbage; Michelle gets tossed against a wall by a malfunctioning sofa bed (that last one is kind of absurd enough to be almost funny). These are stale bits, on top of being weirdly cruel.

Also stale: the film's eyeroll-inducing "she just needs a family!" B-plot, which by the end of the film starts to muscle the much better A-plot the the side. See, Michelle was raised in an orphanage, and was so disagreeable even as a child that she was repeatedly returned there by the families that adopted her. This experience turned her into a closed-off monster, and hence we have everything else that follows. All of what follows, by the way, I think you can predict. It's powerfully bland, even if it does facilitate Martindale's appearance as an increasingly exasperated nun.

All that being said - and since I did start out to right a vaguely positive review, something I have not so far done - there are bits and pieces around the film, above and beyond McCarthy's enthusiasm, that give it some life. One of these, unexpectedly timely, is the way the film riffs on America's most famous cartoonishly awful businessperson (and future President, somehow), Donald Trump: the film's credits openly mimic the general style of the ads and credits for The Apprentice, and Michelle's direst enemy is the owner of a building played by Chicago's Trump Tower, with his big name splashed on it and everything. That enemy is one of the film's other strengths: his name is Renault, he's Michelle's former lover, he speaks with a contrived pseudo-Continental accent, and most importantly, he's played by Peter Dinklage, who has a knack for turning bad characters in poor comedies into something galvanising: why, his very last film prior to The Boss was the dire Pixels, in which he decided that his character would be a locus for wanton anarchic absurdity, and threatened to make it an interesting film in the process. He does nothing nearly so dramatic for The Boss, but he's still doing the Lord's work, untethering everything in the movie from lived human experience, and creating a feeling of surreal madness that at least turns all of his scenes into fascinating little dollops of weirdness (he also makes a great scene partner for McCarthy).

If none of this adds up to a recommendation - and it surely doesn't - it at least adds up to a level of "don't feel like you need to run screaming out of the room if it comes on", and plenty of comedies, some of them with McCarthy, don't hit that level. It's goofy trash, but sometimes the goofiness is sufficient. Anyway, I got more pleasure out of this than McCarthy's other 2016 vehicle, so let that stand for whatever little victory it can.