Who's the Boss?

Lars von Trier's latest film will make you laugh, but it won't make you think

Lars von Trier is best known for his ponderous, difficult-to-watch and gruelingly emotional films, like Dancer in the Dark, Manderlay and Breaking the Waves. But when he's not making movies about the torture, rape and degradation of morally upright women, he sometimes likes to stop for a laugh or two, and his latest light-hearted outing is The Boss of It All.

It's a zany office comedy, just like we used to see back in the early 21st century before global warming caused all the stem cells to turn into suicide bombers that forced us into abandoned Wal-Marts where we subsist on frozen vegan dinners and Lindsay Lohan's preserved vomit.

The Boss of It All's plot seems like it is drawn from an American sitcom or teen film: Ravn (Peter Gantzler) owns a small information-technology company. Because he wants everyone to love him, he pretends that he's not the president of the company. Instead, whenever Ravn has to fire someone or cancel a project or sexually harass an underling, he blames it on the mythical "boss of it all," who is kind of like God in that no one ever sees him, yet he's responsible for all the bad stuff that happens.

Then one day, Ravn finds that in order to complete a business deal with an Icelandic man, he's going to have to actually produce "the boss of it all," because Icelanders, as everyone knows, are too hard-assed to do business with lowly stooges, and will only deal with top dogs or people in Björk's entourage.

Ravn thus hires Kristoffer, an out-of-work actor, to play the part of the boss of it all. But when the office staff sees Kristoffer, they assume that he must be the real boss of it all, and he is forced to continue the charade for another week.

Ha ha! It's inherently funny when people pretend to be other people. This is the sort of comedic insight that is not won by spontaneous intuition, but rather by hard study of the history of world literature (cf. Twelfth Night, She Stoops to Conquer and that episode of Three's Company where Chrissy has sex with the super-powered nun who is disguised as Mel Torme).

Anyway, the weird thing about this film is that, in spite of being in Danish, made by a Dane and starring several actors who reside in Denmark, it's reasonably funny. The comedy works even though some of it is based on a Danish in-joke about how Icelanders are kind of dickish. While Americans tell very few Icelander jokes, you can get the gist of it by imagining the Icelanders to be New England Protestant money lenders with tiny penises.

But beyond that, the really weird thing about this film is that von Trier couldn't just make a straight-ahead zany comedy. Instead, he decided to fire all of his cameramen and let a computer randomly decide when to pan, tilt and zoom. So in a lot of shots, actors are partially out of frame, leaving just the top of a character's head or the side of a face. There are also like a zillion cuts in the film, so it constantly jumps around, and von Trier had no interest in getting consistent lighting from one shot to the next, so in any given scene, the walls will change from cool green to warm orange six or seven times as different shots are cut together.

I guess that's to remind us that even though this is a comedy, and we're having a good time watching it, it's only a film, and the real world is a cold and dark place where blind factory workers get executed for murders they didn't commit. There's only so much funny you can tolerate and still be Danish.

In fact, von Trier begins the film with a voice-over explaining that this movie is "not worth reflecting on" and is a "harmless comedy (with) no preaching or swaying of opinions." Then he ends the film with an apology, which is something more directors should do. (Brett Ratner, for example, should apologize every time he inhales.)

But von Trier really has nothing to apologize for. In spite of an attempt to tack on some depth and emotion, The Boss of It All is a very successful little comedy, with actual laughs. It's not a masterpiece, and the "Automavision" (von Trier's name for his computer-controlled cameras) is a pointless bit of experimentation that neither adds to nor subtracts from the film. However, and surprisingly, von Trier shows that he has some knack for directing comedy, and the cast responds well to material.

Jens Albinus, who plays Kristoffer, the faux boss of it all, is especially good, creating a very weird and obsessive character who doesn't rely on the usual American-comedy style of broad ticks and signature muggings. Instead, he finds a way to exaggerate the underplaying of his role, so that his stone-faced silences become increasingly and uncomfortably funny. It's kind of like watching Buster Keaton in a talking movie, only he's talking Danish, and there are little English words at the bottom of the screen translating what he's saying, but you don't really need to read them, because it's Buster Keaton, and all the comedy is in the expression, except it's not Buster Keaton, it's Jens Albinus.

So I wouldn't say that you must rush out and immediately see The Boss of it All, but it wouldn't hurt you to do so, and it might be amusing in the way that Bazooka Joe comics are amusing when you're 12: You're all like, "Ha, I get it!" and then you giggle, and then you throw it in the trash and forget about it.