Film discussion

Life of the Party: In Defence of Melissa McCarthy

Take a look at the comments of any trailer for a Melissa McCarthy movie on YouTube and, firstly, you’ll remember why you never look at YouTube comments, but you will almost always invariably see a torrent of negativity being spewed in her direction.  In fact, with the exception of Amy Schumer, I’d hazard a guess that McCarthy-led comedies receive some of the most hostile responses from anonymous online commenters nowadays.  And whilst I can understand why Schumer attracts that kind of blind venomous hatred – her whole persona is loud and unashamedly (White) feminist, which tends to rankle the denizens of a comment community where “Indians burn in hell” is a depressingly regular unprompted sight – McCarthy’s heat-magnet has always perplexed me.  Particularly since it’s a cynicism and outright dread that I’ve found also frequently manifests in intelligent Film-based circles.

In fairness, since her Oscar-nominated breakthrough moment in 2011’s Bridesmaids, McCarthy’s leading woman batting average has been… mixed, unless you’re not a fan of Paul Feig movies, in which case it’s been a full-on disaster and this article is going to do nothing but waste your time.  Her latest feature, Life of the Party which was released this past weekend and marks her third collaboration with husband Ben Falcone, is rather indicative of those non-Feig movies at large, being extremely shoddy and aimless, distressingly lacking in jokes, and placing too much weight solely on McCarthy’s shoulders instead of helping her support that.  But, nevertheless, I still find the criticism surrounding McCarthy, her films, and her acting baffling, particularly a recurring comparison from those anonymous hordes to “a female Adam Sandler.”  Because that comparison to me insinuates two absolute falsehoods: 1) she plays the same character every single time, and 2) she’s lazy in both performance and desire to stretch herself artistically.

McCarthy may not have a perfect track record, who amongst us does – even Elisabeth Moss has Did You Hear About the Morgans? blotting her resumé – but I do sincerely believe that, in spite of the reputation she’s been unfairly saddled with (and her worst films), she is one of our most talented comic actresses working today.  And to prove that, one need only look at her collaborations with director Paul Feig.

McCarthy had been around the block for a long while beforehand – most famously in the recurring role of Sookie St. James from Gilmore Girls (a show I have not seen and therefore a performance I cannot comment on, please yell at me about this in the comments) – but she finally crashed through into the mainstream, along with Feig, with 2011’s runaway smash-hit Bridesmaids.  Incorrectly marketed as the female counterpart to The Hangover purely because it dared to be a female-centric comedy with, gasp, one or two scenes of rude and gross humour, the story followed Annie’s (Kristen Wiig) slow, painful midlife crisis breakdown upon hearing the news that her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) is getting married.  But the film for many people was largely stolen by McCarthy’s supporting role as Megan, one of Lillian’s many bridesmaids.

That kind of reaction is not hard to get when the script gives you 90% of the best lines, a brash and outsized personality that naturally draws one’s attention, and is weird in a somewhat nebulous and hard to specify “entertaining” way; all things that Megan on script has.  But what makes the character a, well, character is McCarthy’s performance of her.  Megan is a big personality and she’s very confident, but McCarthy spices that often-riotous performance with tinges of self-doubt and nervousness, most obviously during the “pity party” speech late in the film but it’s also right there in her first meeting with Annie as her rambling story about falling overboard on a cruise ship starts taking some surreal turns.

No matter how outrageous the things that Megan ends up saying or doing throughout the movie – whether it be suggesting a female fight club, repeatedly coming onto an Air Marshal, claiming to own six houses and an eighteen-wheeler “just because I could,” or taking part in the food poisoning scene – McCarthy manages to avoid letting her turn into a caricature.  Part of that is that, whatever you may think of her, McCarthy is one of the best line deliverers in the business today, so anything Megan claims to have done is instantly believable just by the conviction and tone in her voice.  But the bigger part of that is because she projects an earnest heart and warmth at all times, of somebody who may be eccentric but will absolutely fight something to the death if it will help her friends in any way because she wants them to be as largely-confident and comfortable in themselves as she is in herself.  Megan’s late-film reveal to be the additional supportive heart to Annie, the one capable of getting through to Annie and letting her know that she needs to get her shit together, would have meant nothing if McCarthy’s performance hadn’t laid that groundwork throughout the preceding 100 or so minutes.

But that’s all nuance that can be kind of hard for more general audiences to take-away from a movie – not a burn or an elitist complaint, but seriously pay attention to random people’s conversations about a film next time you go to the cinema, it adds necessary perspective.  So McCarthy’s reputation born out of Bridesmaids was that of a loud, foul-mouthed, angry woman (even though she’s never really angry in Bridesmaids but whatever), which was pretty much cemented by her two 2013 vehicles, Seth Gordon’s Identity Thief and re-teaming with Paul Feig for The Heat.  Both characters are remarkably similar to one another: unrepentant sweary jerkasses with neglectful family-based backstories that explain why they refuse to let anyone get close to them but are otherwise decent people deep down.  It’s a role that McCarthy is good at, but whereas the largely-woeful Identity Thief leaves her and co-star Jason Bateman floundering without much direction, The Heat backs her up at every turn with stronger lines, a more defined character, and a script (by Katie Dippold) with surprising nuance for a movie that has McCarthy stopping criminals by flinging watermelons at them.

By the time 2015 came along, it was hard to avoid the collective notion that McCarthy was merely a sweary large-ham with a propensity for physical comedy – an art that she is arguably only second in to Donald Glover in current actors, for the record.  Most trailers for Tammy, her first collaboration with Falcone and the first film she co-wrote, predicated themselves entirely around the early-film setpiece where her title character ineptly attempts to rob a fast food store, complete with failing to clamber over the front counter because ha ha fat people.  Therefore, for me anyway, it’s hard to not read her third collaboration with Feig, the modern-classic Spy, as equal parts a meta-text for McCarthy’s perception as a performer.  After all, the narrative is about how Susan Cooper (McCarthy) is constantly unfairly underestimated by everyone around her, pigeonholed into a specific somewhat-demeaning role because of how she looks and carries herself when she is in fact capable of so much more.  Given the public perception of McCarthy at that point, one even reinforced by Spy’s godawful trailers that tried to position the film as a “fat woman fall down go boom” movie, it shouldn’t be hard to see how I made that aforementioned leap.

With Susan, it feels like Feig (this time writing his own script) was determined to let the world know the range that McCarthy has an actress.  She starts off meek, unassured, modest to a fault, and wracked with self-loathing, the total opposite of her established screen persona.  Then, as part of her undercover work, she gets to go full-force into that typecasting, working with such over-the-top flowery insults and playing up typical-masculinity to such inherently ridiculous degrees that it intentionally feels cartoonish, ill-fitting, completely incapable of taking seriously – rather like Jason Statham’s work in the film, it feels like it should have been a eulogy for this version of McCarthy.  But then, finally, Susan strikes a balance between the two extremes, blossoming into the ideal version of herself as a badass super-spy full of confidence without losing the sweetness and earnestness she displayed at the beginning of the film.  It’s a transformative arc that McCarthy brings together like the absolute pro she is, getting equal parts laughs and pathos whilst also fully convincing as a sole leading actress.  The fact that no major awards bodies agreed with my belief that it was one of 2015’s finest performances period still baffles me to this day.

In a way, I will admit, McCarthy does end up sticking rather close to a certain type of character: somebody with a kind-hearted centre that can at times be obscured by their way with a creative insult.  It’s there in her Feig characters, even Abby Yates from the unfairly-maligned Ghostbusters reboot in spite of being pretty much the Straight Woman of the cast – a role she proves adept at, albeit hampered by the 12a rating and a finished product that clearly had many vital scenes excised to bring it in under 2 hours – and it’s definitely there in her collaborations with Falcone; Tammy, The Boss, and now Life of the Party.  But, and this is crucial, I can tell all of these characters apart, even the less defined ones, like the titular Tammy.  They may all start off from a rather similar base idea, but her best ones are rooted in specific details and additional traits that differentiate one character from another.  Mullins in The Heat has too much character in her insults, takes too much tangible pleasure in her work, and her semi-abusive family needles her in too specific ways for her to be confused with Diana from Identity Thief, in spite of them both being cut from the same cloth.

Plus, for every relatively safe project like Life of the Party, McCarthy is attempting to branch out into new roles, particularly recently.  The same year that Tammy came out, she was taking a co-starring role in Theodore Melfi’s underappreciated dramedy St. Vincent as an overworked single mother and did strong subtle work in what could otherwise have been a stock underwritten role.  In addition to Life of the Party, McCarthy has got two more films coming this year, one as the human lead in the neo-noir puppet movie The Happytime Murders (which will mark the directorial debut of Brian Henson and sounds BONKERS in the best way), and another as Lee Israel in the biographical drama Can You Ever Forgive Me? (directed by The Diary of a Teenage Girl’s Marielle Heller).  And, of course, this is all without mentioning her leading role in mob drama The Kitchen, arriving next year.

Roles like those indicate a clear desire to finally bust the idea of her typecasting for good, perhaps by pulling what we in the biz refer to as “a Tom Hanks.”  As much as that excites me, because I absolutely believe McCarthy has the skills to pull it off, I also hope that this doesn’t come at the expense of her work in out-and-out comedies.  She’s got a screen persona, yes, but no more so than Jason Bateman does and you don’t hear people furiously ranting about how 90% of Jason Bateman characters are pretty much the same.  And though her own collabs with Falcone haven’t quite worked out – again, her characters in those films feel too indebted to her roots in improv troupe The Groundlings, so they don’t fully cohere and skip about on a scene to scene basis – her works with Feig have produced a string of great films and memorable roles that stretch her talents far more than naysayers are willing to admit.  And even in those weaker films, like Life of the Party, she’s always trying, palpably, to wring laughs out of a line, character, scene, anything really.

Not everyone bats a thousand all the time and when you break down most famous comic actors’ various roles, you’ll find they have roots in the type across characters.  Melissa McCarthy is one of our finest comic actresses right now and she deserves a better rep than she has.  Spy alone should set her for life, quite frankly.

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