What to do with Melissa McCarthy? It’s a question I ask myself with a surprising regularity.
When we reviewed Identity Thief on Talking Pictures, I foundered while trying to explain why I wasn’t her biggest fan. God knows I was loath to come down on one of the few successful large woman in mainstream comedy. Add to that how much I loved her as obsessive-compulsive cook Sookie on Gilmore Girls, how eminently likable she comes off in interviews, and the fact that she’s one of the funniest comic actors around and you can see how I was at a bit of a loss.
Besides Albert Brooks, McCarthy was the only amusing part of the unfortunate This Is Forty, and she’s capable of revving herself into a veritable Cadillac of an insult machine. But in her movie shtick boils a pure vitriol that always pulls me out of my admiring reverie: As a rule, she throws out even more vile than is directed her way. I give her credit for not playing the jolly fat lady. I give her credit for not making herself the butt of every joke. But I’m not sure if I give her credit for what she does instead.
For in films McCarthy refuses to make herself the true butt of any joke, instead playing comedic alpha dog to a degree few others do these days. (Maybe Chris Rock, which admittedly puts her in excellent company.) Take her sexuality. Rather than poking fun at her decidedly un-Hollywood physicality, she wields it adroitly. In her three biggest movies, Bridesmaids, Identity Thief and The Heat, she’s depicted as intensely sexual powerful. In Bridesmaids she also may read as laughably predatory but in the end that joke’s on us: she captures her very willing sexual bird of prey (played by her real-life husband). I’m not crazy about the subsequent sexy-sex scene—the two fuck while wolfing enormous submarine sandwiches—but even as I type those words I can hear how prudish they sound. Sure, it does seem she’s mocking her own size by playing up the gluttony angle: aha! a fat woman is turned on by eating! Butshe commits so fully to the premise that we’re laughing with rather than at her.
Some mornings, I go down to the coffeehouse and drink an Americano with two guys who’ve lived in my Italian-American neighborhood for 70 years. For roughly 60 of those years they’ve been best friends in the vein of Frick and Frack, Tom and Jerry, Felix and Oscar. I call them the Muppet critics because they really are just like the old grumps on The Muppet Show. Whenever I hang out with these guys, they argue about everything from the true point of the Civil War to the relative merits of Godfather Part III to which of them is aging worse. Outspoken as I normally am, with them I mostly clutch my coffee and my sides since I’m laughing so hard I’m afraid everything is going to split. They’re good eggs—gruffly kind, street-smart, devoted to the neighborhood and their wives. They were protective and practical when I was going through my miserably drawn-out breakup. (“Eh, you want us to beat him up, Lise?”) They religiously watch the NY1 show on which I appear. (“Your red lipstick needs to make a comeback, doll.”) They problem-solve my issues from weird car noises to money woes to difficult colleagues. They tell amazing stories about back in the day. They pour over the newspapers and debate the major controversies of the day. Then they razz each other some more.
This morning one of them told a joke he’d heard from “a real Jewish guy.” (Our neighborhood borders on the Chasidic section of Williamsburg.) The joke went like this: Abraham and Yosef were imprisoned in the same cell for 25 years. When they were finally released, they walked out of the building, single file. Abraham walked ahead. Yosef trailed behind him, shouting, “Abraham, I forgot to tell ya….”
If you’re blocking a sidewalk or subway entrance and don’t notice because you are fiddling with your phone or iPod, I’ll politely ask you to move a few times. Everyone gets distracted, I grok that. But if you don’t come correct after that, I’ll just shove past you and whatever indignation you subsequently express. As far as I’m concerned, you’ve forfeited your right to be heard and I’ve already moved on. And, no: New York didn’t make me this way. Rather, I’ve made it here for 20 years because I already was like this. I come from a long line of people who wouldn’t have survived if they’d swallowed other people’s shit. I’m convinced all the real New Yorkers—not those on the five-year post-university plan; not those who drift on money they didn’t earn themselves—do. That doesn’t mean we don’t feel compassion and affection and respect for each other. It just means we rely upon a social contract in which no one matters more than anyone else. If we didn’t, 8 million people from all walks of life would never successfully coexist in such a small geographical area. So come correct or don’t come at all. New York is a city of tough lovers–and it’s one of the many reasons that, even in this Hades weather, I love it so.