Why Melissa McCarthy’s Characters Don’t Have to Be Dumb to Be Funny

     July 16, 2016

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(Editor’s Note: With Ghostbusters premiering, we’re looking back at a feature from last summer examining Melissa McCarthy’s other recent comedy characters).

Melissa McCarthy’s been very active in the industry for quite some time now, but clearly Bridesmaids was the game changer. After that movie hit it big in 2011, McCarthy became a certifiable star and since has headlined three major studio comedies – Identity Thief, The Heat and Tammy. All three have confirmed that she can draw a crowd, but they’ve also proved that her shtick can grow tiresome.

The problem isn’t McCarthy as an actress. She always gives 100% and manages to make her characters’ antics feel authentic no matter how ridiculous. The issue pops up when writers and directors think that stupid equals funny. Hopefully McCarthy’s next big release, Spy, will convince filmmakers that she’s much better suited to play smart, capable characters who find themselves in crazy situations rather than ones who get themselves into trouble by making dumb decisions.

Tammy
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Image via Warner Bros.


Tammy is the worst offender, which is surprising considering McCarthy co-wrote the script with her husband and director Ben Falcone. She plays the title character, a woman who opts to head off on a road trip with her grandmother (Susan Sarandon) after losing her job and her husband. It sounds sad, but Tammy deserves it. She walks into Topper Jack’s a dirty mess and makes a scene in front of a room full of costumers. Anyone would have been fired! And the same goes for her marriage, too. It’s terrible that her husband’s cheating on her, but based on what we learn about Tammy in the first few minutes of the movie, it makes sense that he’d leave her for another woman. She’s rude, unkempt and makes one inane decision after the next.

Not only does Tammy’s ridiculous behavior make her tough to like and absolutely impossible to connect to, but that material isn’t particularly funny either. Her conversation with the deer at the beginning of the film doesn’t work because who in their right mind would have a chat with possible roadkill? And the jet ski gag? That doesn’t work either. A moment like that isn’t a comedy of errors. It’s a stupid decision to speed around the lake like that so when she winds up totaling the jet ski and arguing with the guy running the rental booth, it’s not funny because she deserves to face the consequences. 

Identity Thief
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Image via Universal


2013’s Identity Thief has some very similar issues. Stealing identities to get by in life isn’t the brightest idea, but you’ve got to be smart in certain respects in order to make it happen. It’s absolutely baffling that Diana manages to hit the identity theft jackpot time and time again, yet she doesn’t know how to properly cover her tracks to prevent one of her victims from effortlessly finding her via a salon appointment.

The mean spirited nature of the film is a devastating flaw throughout, but there are a handful of mildly successful jokes and almost all of them involve Diana using her wit. For example, the restaurant scene works fairly well. Sandy (Jason Bateman) is humiliated because Diana is savvy enough to seize the opportunity to manipulate that waitress. Moments like that almost manage to make you forget that Diana is an unnecessarily unruly, foul-mouthed, classless woman because the joke doesn’t rely on her brainlessness. As McCarthy proves towards the end of the movie when we get the obligatory third act turnaround, she doesn’t need to stoop to that level to earn laughs. 

The Heat
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Image via Fox


The Heat is a far better movie than Identity Thief and Tammy, but it still comes pretty close to the edge in terms of taking McCarthy’s character a tad too far. The Heat stars Sandra Bullock as Sarah Ashburn. She’s super buttoned-up, plays by the rules and strives to be a flawless FBI agent. McCarthy’s Shannon Mullins is dedicated to upholding the law as well, but she’s going to do it her own way, regardless of whether her superiors approve of her unorthodox methods.

The stark contrast between the way Mullins and Ashburn operate works well. The scene when Mullins makes Ashburn’s outfit club-appropriate is great as is the one when Ashburn walks into Mullins’ apartment and realizes it’s a pigsty with an arsenal. The scene during which Mullins verbally abuses her boss, however? That’s pushing it because it’s over the top, completely inappropriate and would get anyone fired in an instant.

Spy
spy-melissa-mccarthy

Image via 20th Century Fox


If you caught my review of Paul Feig’s Spy from SXSW, you already know that I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, but I had the opportunity to catch it again the other night and that screening further proved that it’s a downright stellar comedy.

There are loads of commendable components to the film like Rose Byrne’s performance, Jason Statham’s scene-stealing work, the surprisingly visceral fight sequences and more, but one of my favorite things about this movie is McCarthy’s desk-bound analyst Susan Cooper. Jude Law’s Bradley Fine may be the hotshot spy, but there’s no way he could pull off his missions without Susan’s support from home base. She isn’t confined to “the basement” because she’s a bumbling idiot who can’t carry out a mission, but rather for the exact opposite reason. She’s incredibly talented when it comes to getting Fine out of sticky situations. When Susan finally gets the opportunity to step out from behind the desk and head out into the field herself, it’s because she earns it and that makes her especially engaging and gives the movie tons of positive energy.

Spy does feature a handful of silly jokes, like when Susan accidentally gobbles up a towel in a fancy restaurant, but 1) the thing did look edible; and 2) that joke comes with a solid payoff. And the same thing goes for the scooter tipping incident featured in a number of trailers. Sure, it’s a pretty embarrassing slapstick gag, but it’s done in a way that feels like it could happen to anyone, not in a way that makes you think, “What an idiot!”

spy-image-melissa-mccarthy

Image via Fox

Spy also highlights the glaring difference between laughing at a character versus a situation. A good deal of the jokes in Identity Thief and Tammy involve McCarthy doing something stupid so that the audience can laugh at her suffering the consequences. Not so in Spy. Even when Susan is given the worst imaginable cover identities, you’re not just laughing at her ridiculous wig or cat sweatshirt because, first off, the cover makes sense. Who would ever suspect that a divorced housewife from Iowa is a spy? And second, the movie already established that Susan is a capable agent, so it’s a blast to see her work with her ridiculous cover and spy gadgets to carry out a successful mission.

You know when McCarthy’s shtick will get old? When filmmakers get lazy and fail to respect her skills. Spy proves that McCarthy can do it all. She can go joke for joke with someone during a dialogue driven scene, she can handle physical humor and she’s also got absolutely no problem bringing a serious dose of heart to her comedies, too. She’s the complete package. She just needs more folks like Feig to give her quality characters like Susan Cooper.


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