The Boss of It All
Danish satire deconstructs office humor for devilish fun
The Boss of It All
Directed by Lars von Trier
Cast: Jens Albinus, Peter Gantzler
Danish director Lars von Trier is something of a prankster. Although best known for drafting the “back to basics” film ethos Dogme ’95 and for creating controversial films like Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, von Trier has always had his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. Occasionally, the joke gets too rancid (as it does in von Trier’s scabrous “USA trilogy” films Dogville and Manderlay); but make no mistake, von Trier does everything with a knowing wink. Nowhere has this been more evident than with the filmmaker’s latest effort, the seemingly light, self-mocking corporate comedy The Boss of It All.
The film starts out with von Trier’s image “accidentally” caught in the reflective windows of a modern office building as the camera cranes upward. The director apologizes and characterizes the film he’s about to unleash as a “harmless” little comedy that is “not worth a moment’s reflection.” Of course, he’s just pulling the audience’s leg—and this won’t be the only time he breaks the fourth wall to do so.
The setup on The Boss of It All is brilliant—so damn brilliant that I hesitate to suggest how perfect it would be as a Hollywood remake. Hilarious as it might end up, an American remake would certainly miss the sly self-mockery von Trier has in mind. ... That, or he’d find a big-budget studio rewrite the perfect punch line to his joke.
The Boss of It All gives us two major protagonists to keep our eyes on. Mr. Ravn (Peter Gantzler, Italian for Beginners) is the secret owner of a successful IT company in Denmark. Unwilling to shoulder the blame for the difficult decisions (firing employees, cutting salaries, axing vacation time), Ravn has invented a fake boss on whom he blames all the bad stuff. But now, Ravn is on the verge of selling his company to an ill-tempered Icelandic investor (Icelandic director/producer Fridrik Thor Fridriksson). In order to sign over the company, Ravn’s got to produce the boss of it all in person. Instead of finally copping to his deception, he hires a pretentious, out-of-work actor named Kristoffer (Jens Albinus, The Idiots) to play the part of the company’s absentee owner.
When contract negotiations get complicated (due mostly to Kristoffer’s over-the-top line readings), our sham company head is forced to hang around the office and ad-lib with his curious employees—all of whom seem slightly insane. One thinks he’s gay. Another thinks he’s proposed marriage. Another bursts into tears every time the copy machine turns on. Making matters worse is the fact that Ravn has told each of the employees wildly different things about their boss. What follows is a clever series of skits involving Kristoffer trying to feel out his employees, looking for some clue as to how he’s supposed to act. (It doesn’t help, for example, that he doesn’t actually have any idea what “IT” is.)
In time, Kristoffer figures out that Ravn is even more of a jerk than he seems. With the sell off date looming and the employees’ necks on the chopping block, the actor gets more and more into his role, trying to figure out a way to use his newfound position to set everything right.
The Boss of It All is directed in a deliberately low-tech style with lots of bad framing, sickly lighting and jittery editing—all of it obviously intentional on von Trier’s part. According to von Trier, the film was shot without the aid of a cinematographer using a brand-new computer-controlled “Automavision” camera designed to limit human influence over the filmmaking process—which may, in and of itself, be a joke about corporate downsizing and outsourcing. As the film progresses, the filmmaker returns a time or two making excuses in voice-over about his various cinematic contrivances—such as introducing another key character late in the game for the sake of drama. Throughout it all, he uses Kristoffer to make jabs at self-obsessed actors, Ravn to highlight the perils of globalization and the bellicose Icelandic businessman to, well, poke general fun at Icelanders.
In the end, you get the sense that von Trier himself may be having the last laugh. He’s less interested in humor than in the mechanical process of setting up jokes. As a result, the film never quite exploits the heights of humor that—dare I say it?—an American remake might. That doesn’t entirely spoil the fun, however. Artistic ulterior motives aside, The Boss of It All is smart, cutting-edge satire. And about a hundred times less painful to watch than Manderlay.