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Women Can’t Have It All, Even at the Movies

"Like a Boss" inadvertently lays bare some unfunny truths about hashtag-empowerment.

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

It’s absolutely clear quite early on—in its second minute or so—that Like a Boss is a bad film, the sort without the decency even to be truly awful. It’s just a slipshod contraption of gags (not jokes, you understand) held together by the audience’s will to be entertained. We pay in hopes it will make us laugh. By the end I did, aloud, like the sort of mildly deranged person I always encounter at matinees in New York City. I hope I didn’t disturb the other two people in the theater.

Like a Boss is nominally the story of longtime friends Mel (Rose Byrne) and Mia (Tiffany Haddish), who run a small beauty company and tangle with a cosmetics mogul, Claire Luna (Salma Hayek). Big Hollywood entertainments tend to have simple messages—in this case: Friendship is great! As one character notes early, so you don’t miss the point, Mia and Mel aren’t just pals or co-workers, they’re “life partners,” besties since middle school. The film declines the opportunity to deal with lesbian subtext (not even a gag!). There are dudes they can (and do) enjoy a romp with, but for Mia and Mel, sex is irrelevant to the fantasy of true intimacy.

It’s a potent idea. The real reason Sex and the City endures as a classic is not its depiction of sexual mores (weirdly outdated, perhaps always more conservative than was thought) but the way it conjured lives structured around friendship instead of romance or family. But Like a Boss doesn’t take this or any other subject seriously. Rather, it is an unwitting document of the current moment and women’s convoluted relationship to work.

Mia and Mel are struggling, having branched out from internet retail to a real storefront. Still, they are fulfilled, helping nerdy teens primp for the big dance and making a happy workplace for their two employees, Barrett (Billy Porter) and Sydney (Jennifer Coolidge). But Claire has her eye on them and offers to infuse the business with cash. If one of the partners departs, she’ll become the majority owner.

There’s no real story, just vignettes, opportunities for the actors to vamp, or sing, or dive into a pool fully clothed, all bits that feel culled from a dozen more cohesive movies. Claire means, of course, to drive a wedge between the partners—to ruin their friendship and subsume their brand into her empire. What we’re supposed to be watching is that break in their bond, but the film only lazily attends to it. It is a collage of non sequitur, disinterested in any kind of logic.

Why is women-in-business a cinematic subgenre at all? I love many such films even if they all rely, in some fashion, on us finding women at work inherently absurd. They posit women as sex object or secretary on one end of the spectrum or frigid successful bitch on the other. If they’re the former, as in 9 to 5 or Working Girl, they need to outsmart the system and seize power for themselves. If they’re the latter, like Diane Keaton’s corporate killer in Baby Boom, they need to learn conventional femininity—in that film, by inheriting custody of a distant relative’s baby and finding love (and success, as the maker of organic baby food, no less).

The culture has evolved in the decades since Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin, and Jane Fonda avenged the nefarious sexism of the then-contemporary office. In Like a Boss, success matters but so does authenticity. Sisterhood, in this instance, is the opposite of selling out. Claire once had a best friend business partner herself; she ditched her and climbed to the top, and urges Mel to do the same to Mia.

It’s telling that the stakes for these #girlboss entrepreneurs are so low. Mia and Mel don’t want to get rich—they want to get out of debt. Capital is the lifeblood of business, but money is curiously rarely mentioned in this movie or in any of the aforementioned women-in-business comedies. In Working Girl, Tess wants to prove herself more than she wants to get rich. The film’s triumphant final scene doesn’t show her at the top but one rung higher on the endless corporate ladder.

I’ll tell you how Like a Boss ends (it won’t interfere with your ability to enjoy it when you watch it in-flight someday): Mia and Mel do a literal song and dance to “Proud Mary.” They have a new product line, called Proud, that celebrates the natural beauty you cherish in your friends. It’s about positivity and the beautiful notion that it’s not the male gaze that determines a woman’s worth. Even if it doesn’t make them rich, it makes them happy.

Haddish can be very funny; even the sound of her voice is hilarious, as the writers clearly know, because they give her a lot of nonsense to say, and most of it will at least make you grin. The one time I laughed out loud is when Mia, furious with Claire’s scheming, picks up the golf club she always carries (don’t ask; it doesn’t matter) and smashes the glass wall of a conference room. It’s hilarious, and maybe I’m overthinking, but even bad art can tell us something about ourselves. At this point, we understand how business works. Why aim for the glass ceiling at all?