When you think of Lars von Trier, light-hearted, sitcom-ready humor is just about the last thing that comes to mind. Thus, The Boss of It All, a tossed-off look at white collar workplace dynamics clearly indebted to both TV shows called “The Office” and Mike Judge’s cult hit Office Space, seems suspiciously incongruous within the controversial Dane’s decidedly short-on-laughs oeuvre.
Taken at face value, this yarn about an aspiring theatre actor hired to play a Copenhagen-based company’s offshore president feels downright perplexing coming from the man who brought you Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, and Dogville.
On closer inspection, though, The Boss of It All is marked, above all, by one of von Trier’s favorite themes, absurdity. In the rigorous, art-as-agony aesthetic of signature von Trier, it’s all too easy to lose sight of just how inherently absurd some of von Trier’s central conceits are, from Emily Watson’s impossibly simple Bess in Breaking the Waves to Dogville‘s Brechtian send-up.
Von Trier has always trafficked in the ridiculous and the self-consciously heightened. This is nothing new. The only real difference here is that it’s funny. But it’s not very funny. Most of the laughs in Boss of It All are thanks to the uniformly terrific cast (especially Jens Albinus in the lead, no doubt a to-die-for role, and Iben Hjejle, who my wife correctly identified as John Cusack’s on-again off-again flame in High Fidelity). Not much comedy comes from Von Trier, whose resistance to ditching his quirks ultimately prevents him from milking the material for its full comic potential.
This is the sort of middling, sporadically funny, sporadically dull art-house comedy that you keep wishing would ditch the art-house qualifier and just go for it already. Time after time, just as The Boss of It All begins to build narrative steam and provoke consistent laughs, von Trier squanders the momentum with tangential twists or the sort of self-reflexive nods that paid dividends in Dogville but fall flat here.
At its best, this is a slight yet smart, borderline farcical investigation of 21st century corporate culture, and more expansively, a winking indictment of the auteur theory. On the latter count, the lingering question is who the director’s on-screen surrogate is here. Is it the seemingly good-hearted but in-over-his-head actor hired to play the boss, or the secretly scheming real boss who hires him because he’s too cowardly to pass bad news on directly to his employees?
My hunch says both in rather the same way that von Trier is present in both Nicole Kidman and James Caan’s Dogville characters. That’s our Lars all right. He is at once, the suffering saint and the godlike maestro, peaking out from behind the red curtain while orchestrating his absurd symphony of pain.