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.
Therein lies the brilliance of McCarthyism. When we laugh during that scene, we may be partly laughing at the premise that a big lady with big appetites could exert sexual power, could be perceived as desirable. But we’re mostly laughing out of sheer incredulousness because her voltage, like that of many large male comedians, is extraordinary. At which point we’re confronted with our own bias, especially since she and her partner seem plenty satisfied rather than repulsed. (It doesn’t hurt the plausibility that she’s actually schtupping her real-life sexual partner.) If we then decide that the scene is funny but humiliating, we’re ivory-towering like nobody’s business. All while she laughs all the way to the bank.
Is this all a form of self-sabatoge? Maybe, but it’s one far more Machiavellian than anything that a larger-sized woman has pulled off since Roseanne Barr. In fact, Barr has come out in full support of McCarthy, tweeting at one point: “you are a great comedian–your body is your instrument–you play it expertly.”
Which brings me to another point about McCarthy. Roseanne’s tweet was a response to the furor that ensued when legendary curmudgeon, kleptomaniac, and, oh yeah, critic Rex Reed referred to McCarthy as “tractor-sized” and “a female hippo” in his review of Identity Thief. (Full disclosure: Reed was referring to me in his Cop Out review when he wrote that “a lady reviewer old enough to know better went into high-pitched squeals of shrieking hysterics every time the cops described in detail their excrement, flatulence and penis size.” A. I still think those jokes were funny. B. Reed really is a nasty piece of work when it comes to the ladies.)
McCarthy handled Reedgate with admirable grace and even more admirable savvy. First, she waited months to respond, leaving him to dig himself into a big hole all on his own. When she finally did break her silence last month on Good Morning America, she did so not with fists swinging, as one of her characters might have done, but by softly and simply acknowledging how hurtful she’d found his comments and how they perpetuated a standard that harmed younger, more impressionable women. Brilliantly strategic, brilliantly useful. No wonder Roseanne—no slouch herself when it comes to advancing female empowerment—passionately came to her defense. But whereas Roseanne would have offended as many people as she helped with her braying bluntness (gotta love that Rosie), McCarthy stated her case so gently that she rendered her undeniably valid points even more effective. And on Mike and Molly, the TV sitcom on which she stars as half of a large-sized couple, she also has hatched some useful public debates.
So far, so good. But in her Hollywood roles she exudes none of that good will. Instead of a gooey center her characters boast strange little sob stories of how they became wretches. She’s eternally the badass with a heart of shattered glass. They’re also not nearly as visually appealing as she, with her creamy skin, sparkling eyes, and va-va-voomy curves, appears in real life. So why are they working? Because she is so much swifter on the uptake, burns so much brighter than everyone around her that she is always the one we want to watch, even if normally we’d be disinclined to whomever she’s portraying.
The Heat is a perfect example. In it, she plays Mullins, a maverick cop whose noncompliance extends to her personal hygiene and basic social skills. Despite that, it is Ashburn, the uptight FBI agent (Sandra Bullock) whose worst offenses are off-the-rack suits and a stick visibly lodged up her ass, who takes all the hits here. McCarthy as Mullins nails Bullock’s Ashburn in gag after gag—many of which are actually pretty funny—but after a while the plausibility of the premise falters more than the paper-thin crime plot (the downfall of all cop buddy movies). The empress is wearing clothes, yes, but they’re uglier than the ones she’s mocking. In one particularly flat-footed scene, Mullins attacks Ashburn for wearing a barrette. It’s a side barrette—a little good-girlish, sure, but nothing as fugly as the big barrette Mullins uses to yank back her greasy locks. Ashburn calls her on the abject hypocrisy and though Mullins fires back a quick rejoinder (my barrette actually is useful!), the scene rings false. It seems constructed solely to head off any cries of bullshit about the duo’s dynamics. A lot of analysis about a small hair accessory, yes, and certainly none of it may register if you haven’t grappled with mean-girl minutiae first-hand. But still. Though it’s kind of great that the tall, gorgeous lady is playing second fiddle to the short, heavy woman, if it weren’t radically on-point McCarthy playing Mullins, the character would just read as inexcusably, unnecessarily bullying.
And that’s the core problem with Melissa McCarthyism. It’s as if, in big Hollywood roles, the woman doesn’t yet feel she can afford the endearing vulnerability that distinguishes the best comic actors, from Steve Carrell to Louis C.K. to Kristin Wiig (who also seems to be waging a complicated internal battle) to Will Ferrell—even though she’s demonstrated that exact quality in other forums and she’s already scored an Oscar nod and an Emmy. The new McCarthyism is all about broad comedy in every sense of that term. Sign on or don’t but let the record stand: simple girl power this is not.