Friday, November 1, 2013


Melissa McCarthy:  She's found stardom. Can she find greatness?
There is an iconic comedic role out there for Melissa McCarthy. It didn't quite come in Seth Gordon's Identity Thief, although you can't say she didn't give it her best shot.  Like the great home run hitters of the past, McCarthy swings for the fences every time in this movie.  Because of her incredible efforts, she's the only good thing in Identity Thief. 

She certainly gets no help from Jason Bateman, who is playing the same dry character he's played for a decade. In this one he plays Sandy Patterson, a Colorado financial expert whose identity is stolen by McCarthy, a psychopathic thief living in Florida. She promptly goes on a spending spree and not only ruins his credit, but costs him his job. Desperate, he bargains with his boss - if he can bring her back to Colorado to explain what has happened, he gets to keep his job. He tracks her down, but finds that she's also being hunted by various criminals and bounty hunters. From there, we're treated to a reasonably entertaining road movie as Bateman tries to haul  McCarthy back to Colorado.

The film has already been unfavorably compared to Trains, Plains and Automobiles, but it actually owes more to the Robert DeNiro-Charles Grodin comedy, Midnight Run. Unfortunately,  Identity Thief so badly wants to be like those movies that it feels like a cheap copy, rather than an homage.

The main problem is that Gordon can't wait to spread on the pathos. Early in the film we see McCarthy drinking herself into a stupor.  Gordon may as well insert a title card reading: This woman is sad and lonely , and you will grow to love her... By tipping his hand so early, Gordon blows it. It would have been smarter to keep her as a psychotic crook for most of the movie, and not reveal her soft side until much later.  (Let's take Trains, Plains, and Automobiles as an example - if John Candy had been weeping over the memory of his wife in the first scene, would we have been so effected by the later scene when Steve Martin learns that Candy is alone on Thanksgiving? Of course not.)

McCarthy's skill as an actress is formidable. With just a slight downturn of her mouth, she can suggest a lifetime of sadness. You are talking about a classic sad clown here, someone along the lines of a Jackie Gleason or a Charlie Chaplin. She's really that good. An undisciplined director like Gordon figures such a horse must be allowed to run, but he should've reigned her in. There are times in the movie where McCarthy is working so hard, huffing and puffing, brawling, dancing, crying, that to watch her was like witnessing a lone deckhand try to keep a sinking ship afloat.
Still, McCarthy nearly wills the movie into something watchable. The scenes where she beats the hell out of Bateman make for some pretty good slapstick, and her encounter with a barfly named "Big Chuck" ( Eric Stonestreet  of Modern Family in a great cameo) is probably the film's highlight. When she invites Big Chuck to enjoy a "threesome" with her and an unwilling Bateman, the results are both comical and disgusting.

I wish good ol' Chuck had joined the duo on their ride back to Colorado, because his presence would've been more welcome than Bateman's  tight-lipped sarcasm.  Unfortunately, for every stellar moment of physical comedy, there's a maudlin scene waiting around the corner. Hell, there's even a makeover scene where McCarthy gets her hair done. As always happens in movies, Bateman's eyes glaze over and he tells her she's beautiful. In another scene McCarthy cries and admits that she'd been an orphan, and wishes she'd had a father figure like Bateman. It's all a bit much, and the goofiness of the comedy, which includes McCarthy getting hit by a car (and hit in the face with a guitar)  can't quite support McCarthy's emotional confessing.

Some might say that too much McCarthy is a bad thing, and that she's best taken in smaller doses, such as in her TV show, Mike & Molly, or in supporitng roles.  She is, after all, an impeccable scene stealer. In a film loaded with funny ladies, she demolished Bridesmaids and made it her own. More recently, her brief cameo in Judd Apetow's This is 40 was the absolute highlight of an otherwise shrill, unfunny comedy. She was also brought in to inject a little life into The Hangover III.

As reliable as McCarthy is in supporting roles, I think she could carry a movie, without needing a Jason Bateman to act as her straight man. She's unique, perhaps the funniest woman to hit Hollywood in several decades.  There's an iconic role for her up there in the ether, but it won't be in a formulaic film like Identity Thief. It will be in a movie where she doesn't have to try so hard.

The Heat, which saw McCarthy co-star with Sandra Bullock, was a monster summer hit, earning over 150-million in ticket sales. This was a truly astounding number for a film not based on a Marvel Comics hero.

Although possessing the structure of a traditional cop-buddy picture, and directed with skill by Paul Feig, The Heat is not significantly better than The Identity Thief. It's every bit as broad, with McCarthy playing the same sort of gross character, although this time she's on the side of the law. (For a change, Bullock is the orphan in this one. Will there be orphans in all of McCarthy's movies?)  Still, audiences flocked to The Heat, perhaps because she was paired with Bullock, America's sweetheart. Bullock is in full nerd mode here, playing a straitlaced FBI agent who finds herself in Boston trying to bring down a major drug dealer.  McCarthy plays  an ultra violent Irish street cop who reluctantly teams up with her. They bicker. They bond. They catch the bad guys.

There are a few funny moments, including some clever stuff with a cat, but there's a lot here that doesn't add up. At one point Bullock performs an emergency tracheotomy on the floor of a Denny's, which is not only gross, it makes her look mentally unbalanced. McCarthy, too, seems unbalanced. She spouts vulgarities as if she has Tourette syndrome, and her tiny apartment is filled with enough weaponry, including grenades and rocket launchers,  to impress Tony Montana.

There's also a scene where McCarthy clobbers a young black hoodlum with a watermelon. The scene is played for laughs, but an Irish Boston cop hitting a black kid with a watermelon is a bit lowbrow, particularly from Paul Feig, an intelligent fellow who seems scarily comfortable taking the low road.  Feig directed Bridesmaids, and there are scenes in The Heat where McCarthy treats Bullock to the same tough love she gave Kristen Wiig in the earlier movie. Feig knows this much: put enough female bonding in a film and you can overcome just about anything. Even watermelon gags.
As in The Identity Thief, McCarthy goes from violent to sad and back again, and by the film's end reveals herself to be a  softy.  Feig, a more sophisticated director than Gordon, doles these scenes out carefully, so they seem logical. Still, one wonders how long McCarthy can go on playing the vulgarian with a heart of gold.  Not only will audiences eventually tired of her silly/sad routine, but directors, unsure of how to use her, may simply burn her out after a few more movies. Melissa, jump off the roof, now cry, now fall in a pile of cow shit, now cry again, now have another grotesque sex scene, now cry again, scream some more vulgarities, and cry again, please. Like a good trooper, she'll do whatever is asked of her. But even a comic hurricane can blow itself out to sea.
As for McCarthy's immediate future, it looks like more of the same. Feig, quickly becoming von Sternberg to McCarthy's Dietrich,  is  directing Susan Cooper,  where McCarthy plays a wacky secret agent. McCarthy has already finished Tammy, a film from her own screenplay, where she plays a woman on a road trip with her mother. There are also rumors of The Heat II.  Aside from  St. Vincent De Van Nuys, which also stars Bill Murray and may be a little more serious, we're in for another year or two of more situations where McCarthy can trash hotels and embarrass people. Maybe the gimmick can work a while longer.  But with each foulmouthed tirade, she may be bellowing her way into redundancy.

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