I used to find Melissa McCarthy frustrating.
Director Paul Feig calls her “one of the funniest people in the world.” Her husband, actor Ben Falcone, says she “will do anything to get a laugh” but her tendency to go for the easy gag often put me in the mind of Will Ferrell in his Blades of Glory nadir.
Thanks to a string of hits like Bridesmaids, Identity Thief, The Heat and Tammy and an $809,163,263 box office total, McCarthy is a rarity in Hollywood, a female comedy superstar. Everyone agrees she is a skilled comic actor who amplifies the funny in good movies and elevates the jokes in lesser scripts but the latter is why I used to find her exasperating. Much of her recent work—this weekend’s very funny Spy notwithstanding—has relied on her major personality to magnify minor material.
There’s no arguing with the kind of financial success she has enjoyed but critical accolades have been elusive. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, said of Tammy, “The movie’s principal intention is to make you laugh at a loser, and revel in scenes from which polite people would instinctively turn away.”
Bridesmaids was her flashpoint, the film that broke her out of the TV sidekick treadmill. As Megan—imagine a feral, female Guy Fieri—she stole the show out from under other, better known stars like Kristen Wiig and earned an Oscar nomination. It’s a wonderful, weird performance that hinted at great things to come but aside from a few inspired moments she has not made good on the promise of Bridesmaids. Her work has come to rely too heavily on a stock character, the obnoxious loser with a heart of gold buried beneath a thick shell of one-liners and non sequiturs.
“I’ve played a lot of characters who are very vocal, very aggressive,” she told me in 2014. “For the women I’ve played there is a reason why they are so ballsy and it is nice when you see the crack in the veneer and you realize, ‘It’s part of their insecurity. They stay loud so nobody yells at them.’”
It’s an interesting character breakdown but one that played itself out by the end of 2013’s Identity Thief when I believe she became infected with Will Ferrell disease.
There was a time when Will Ferrell could do no wrong. At least that’s what the directors of Blades of Glory, Land of the Lost and Semi-Pro thought. Popular with audiences, he was allowed to run riot in a series of so-so films resulting in the bleak middle period of his career where manic energy replaced humor in his films.
McCarthy suffers from the same affliction. She is funny, she knows how to deliver a line, but in Identity Thief, The Heat and Tammy she’s off the chain, Ferrelling her way through underwritten scripts.
Ferrell turned things around and so has McCarthy. In St. Vincent she took a step away from her well-established comedic persona to deliver laughs and show her dramatic range.
Her latest film, Spy is also welcome return to form. Paired once again with director Feig, the movie offers up the best of both worlds, a funny, smart script and a director who knows how to maximize her talents. As Susan Cooper, a CIA computer-analyst-turned-international-field-agent-on-a-mission-of-revenge, she’s likeable, funny and most importantly, reigned in.