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Despite a bang-up cast, a flimsy story consigns ‘Like a Boss’ to Dump Month

Tiffany Haddish, Rose Byrne, Salma Hayek and Billy Porter can’t save this story on friendship and the beauty industry

In the film industry, the few weeks between New Year’s Day and the beginning of the Sundance Film Festival are known as Dump Month.

Unless it’s making an awards run, like Just Mercy, which had a limited opening last month to qualify for awards season and is opening nationwide Friday, there’s a good chance that a movie opening in January is one that has not engendered much institutional enthusiasm.

This year’s specimen is Like a Boss, which is an example of why the film industry’s version of a junk drawer exists.

It’s a shame too, because Like a Boss, written by Sam Pittman and Adam Cole-Kelly, based on a story by Danielle Sanchez-Witzel, and directed by Miguel Arteta, boasts a cast of terrific comic actors: Tiffany Haddish, Rose Byrne, and Salma Hayek, with supporting turns from Billy Porter and Jennifer Coolidge.

From left to right: Tiffany Haddish as Mia, Karan Soni as Josh, Salma Hayek as Claire Luna, and Rose Byrne as Mel in Like a Boss from Paramount Pictures.

Paramount Pictures

Haddish co-stars as an Atlanta makeup artist named Mia. She and her best friend Mel (Byrne), have launched their own boutique makeup company, with Mia as the creative genius who mixes colors and Mel handling the business. But they’re in debt to the tune of about $500,000, so they take a meeting with Claire Luna (Hayek), the crazed, diabolical CEO of a cosmetics empire called Oviedo. Porter and Coolidge play Mia and Mel’s employees.

Mia and Mel agree to sell a 49 percent stake in their eponymous company to Claire Luna without consulting a lawyer or fully reading the contract that deliberately sets them up to fail. Claire Luna decides to play divide and conquer with the two, knowing that if they can’t turn their business around, the contract will give her 2 more percentage points in the company — a controlling share.

It’s truly regrettable that they’re failed by a flimsy story. There’s certainly room for a comedy that takes the $530 billion cosmetics industry —and the people (mostly women) whose money powers it — seriously. It’s an industry that’s used the growth of the influencer economy to vault its profits into the stratosphere, to the point that an exhausting sameness has come to rule YouTube and Instagram.

Alongside FaceTune and plastic surgery, as the New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino has written, the beauty industry has marketed itself as a way for every woman to contour their features into what Tolentino calls “a look of rootless exoticism.” The hunger for the confections that will achieve such a look are so coveted that they’re also powering an underground economy of cheap knockoffs, as revealed in the chilling Makeup Mayhem episode of the Netflix docuseries Broken. One woman who bought a knockoff lip kit discovered that she couldn’t open her mouth because she’d unwittingly applied superglue to her lips with tainted lip gloss.

Billy Porter (right) plays Barret and Tiffany Haddish plays Mia Carter in Like a Boss from Paramount Pictures.

Paramount Pictures

But Pittman, Cole-Kelly, and Sanchez-Witzel barely bother to engage with these modern developments in the cosmetics industry, or treat their characters as remotely competent, or demonstrate any interest in the complexities of female friendships and how they’re affected by money or the lack of it. Mia and Mel are written as a couple of well-intentioned idiot best friends who know nothing about business, and Claire Luna as a greedy dragon lady who lives for ruining lives, even when it costs her money.

It really is an unfortunate waste of talent.

Byrne has been a memorable delight ever since her run as a simpleton pop star called Jackie Q in Get Him to the Greek. Roles in Spy, Bridesmaids, and Neighbors have only burnished her reputation as an onscreen funny lady.

Haddish’s peripatetic approach to stardom has resulted in a few duds since stealing every scene in Girls Trip, but she’s more than proven her chops. Hayek has been working the hot-lady-opposite-sputtering-rube shtick since the Clinton administration. (Remember Wild Wild West?) And there’s almost nothing that Coolidge can’t make more enjoyable. From the American Pie franchise to Legally Blonde and Pootie Tang, the woman thrives on the ridiculous. Add in a few pithy remarks, an eyebrow raise, and a withering heel-turn from Porter, and you ought to have yourself a halfway decent comedy, yes?

Alas, that was not the case, and Paramount Pictures appears to know it. The press screening for Like a Boss took place when nearly every critic in New York was yukking it up with Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyong’o and other luminaries at the New York Film Critics Circle’s annual awards ceremony.

The cast shows admirable commitment to its half-baked roles, and Arteta is capable of more interesting and compelling work. He directed Hayek in Beatriz at Dinner, an insightful, offbeat and underappreciated portrait of race and class in the Trump era. A comedy about the beauty industry combining the rigor of Adam McKay’s approach to The Big Short with the emotional insight and irresistible foolishness of Bridesmaids could easily be a classic of the 2020s.

But no amount of concealer can hide the plot holes or general laziness that tanks Like a Boss, and it is exactly those inadequacies that have consigned it to Dump Month.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on black life.