I would guess as a general rule comedy travels less well across cultures than drama. When it’s further a matter of different languages, and having to maneuver through subtitles to get the jokes, that adds just a little more disconnect, that puts the timing off just a little more.
Bheja Fry is all the more impressive for having overcome that. I thought that movie was laugh out loud funny.
I’m not quite sure where to put The Boss of It All in those terms, however. The whole movie I felt like an outsider, never entirely sure about the comedy conventions, the references, the plays on words that can’t survive translation (e.g., a character is frightened of a woman from “H.R.,” because he’s never heard of that as an abbreviation for the corporate euphemism “human relations” and is convinced it means she’s with the Hell’s Angels), etc.
I found myself constantly wondering what an American movie with this same premise and roughly the same gags would be like. It was almost like I was a beat behind, silently converting it in my mind and finding it more “hypothetically” funny than regular funny, i.e., if I were more fully in tune with this I think I’d find it more amusing than I do now.
That being said, I actually laughed out loud multiple times in this movie. There were enough inventive, oddball moments, that even if they weren’t really connecting with me a hundred percent, they connected with me enough to enjoy.
I found the movie as a whole to have enough things that didn’t make sense, enough holes in the plot, that I was laughing more at the trees than the forest. Not that I couldn’t make sense of the story at all—certainly I got the gist of the plot—but I responded more to the humor of individual scenes, lines, and characters, than to that of the whole.
A Danish man owns some generic or vaguely computer-related company. He passes himself off to the motley crew that makes up his primary office staff as some sort of a middle man who is only enforcing the decisions of a mysterious owner that no one ever meets. That way he doesn’t have to be the bad guy when he does bad guy stuff.
The business achieves considerable success, and many years later he decides to sell for a hefty profit. However, the president of the Icelandic company looking to buy his business (a decidedly ill-tempered fellow who vulgarly rants against the Danish at every opportunity), refuses to deal with a middleman and wants the owner present when they sign the final papers, not knowing of course that the owner is fictitious, and that this guy is in fact the owner.
So the businessman hires a hack actor to play the owner. The actor is a solid comic character, very self-important, always wanting to pontificate about his craft and sing the virtues of obscure playwright “Gambini,” “the first to see through Ibsen.” The businessman wants him just to sign the papers and be on his way, but he insists on getting into character and trying to make it a whole elaborate thing.
The meeting falls apart, in part due to the actor infuriating everyone by speaking in a ridiculous, ponderous, dramatic style not heard since Reverend Jim at the DMV in Taxi.
The businessman is able to arrange another meeting to try to close the deal, but in the meantime the actor has been wandering about the office, introducing himself as the owner, adding an unneeded complication into the situation.
The businessman decides, for reasons not clear to me, that they might as well follow through and have the actor come to work every day and play the owner. Also for reasons I didn’t get, he doesn’t prepare him, and doesn’t seem all that concerned about whether he’s able to pull it off. And in fact he generally doesn’t even bother coming to work himself to monitor the situation.
So the actor is left to flounder, having to make things up as he goes along. He doesn’t even know what his name is supposed to be.
Making his improv effort more difficult is the fact that the other people in the office have all had long term e-mail relationships with the “owner” (of course really the businessman himself), and worse yet, the businessman made the owner character subtly different for each of them, giving each one whatever they needed to make them work harder for less money.
So the actor finds himself dealing with people at least as weird as him, trying to figure out how he’s supposed to interact with them. There’s the skittish woman who’s afraid of any office machines, the crude country bumpkin who’s always violent or on the verge of being violent (there’s a recurring gag where talking about the weather or something sets him off, but I never got that), the woman who’s convinced the owner proposed to her via e-mail, the woman who refuses to believe the owner’s e-mail efforts to put her off by claiming to be gay (who proceeds to try to convert him when they finally meet in person, leading to her being bent over his desk with her skirt up—“Just so you’re not confused, I have two holes back there”), etc.
Gradually the actor comes to realize that the charade wasn’t some way for the businessman to overcome his shyness about exercising authority, but that in fact he’s been exploiting these people and even borrowing money from them for years, and now is going to sell to someone who will clean house and eliminate all their jobs immediately.
He’s tempted to foil the whole thing. But remember he’s kind of nuts himself, so it’s unpredictable to the end just what he’ll do and how he’ll do it, to the point where he’s agonizing comically in one scene over whether to sign the sale papers, frustrating everyone present while he interminably tries to dig deep into his “character” to try to understand what that fictitious being would do in this situation.
On the one hand it’s kind of a light comedy, a satirical jab at the corporate world, but because of the language and cultural issues, and the fact that it’s a little dense in places, it takes more effort and concentration to watch than I associate with a light comedy. It doesn’t help that it’s shot intentionally amateurishly with constant distracting jump cuts. (I read later that that was some kind of experimental thing, where the director used computer-programmed cameras that move on their own in response to where people are in front of them or something, so there’s this constant shifting of perspective, as the angles change slightly from jump to jump of the same scene.)
Is it worth the extra effort? Probably. I got more laughs out of this than the average comedy. There really are some oddball characters and inventive stuff here. A good example of the sharp material and good comic timing is near the end of the film. Of course it makes no sense to describe it without seeing it, but the actor’s ex-wife utters a perfect “Oh shit!” when she realizes before anyone else—because she knows him better than them—that he’s going to screw the whole thing up after all.
I’ll give The Boss of It All a mild recommendation, but it’s certainly not for people who are impatient with subtitled films or aren’t big on this kind of humor.