After earning an Oscar nomination for “Bridesmaids” in 2012, longtime supporting player Melissa McCarthy made one of the more respectable career moves of the past several years: She seized her newfound exposure to mainstream audiences and demanded the opportunity to be put front and center. Lucky for her, it worked like gangbusters.
In the years since “Bridesmaids'” blockbuster success, McCarthy’s three star vehicles — “Identity Thief,” “The Heat” and “Tammy” — have grossed approximately $377 million domestically, making her one of the biggest and most reliable box office draws in the business. “Tammy” may have received some of the worst reviews of McCarthy’s career, but it still managed to gross four times its $20 million budget because of her undisputed popularity, which is quite remarkable for such a critical punching bag. If McCarthy is an established above-the-title headliner, and if her films are guaranteed moneymakers, than what’s the problem? Well, it’s this: Big-budget comedy tentpoles are pigeonholing her talents, keeping them tied down to a variation on the same character type.
Megan in “Bridesmaids” was a raunchy self-made woman who was really just misunderstood. Diana in “Identity Thief” was an obnoxious criminal who was damaged and misunderstood. Detective Mullins in “The Heat” was a foulmouthed Boston cop who was really just a misunderstood foster kid. The eponymous Tammy was a reckless loon who was misunderstood and down on her luck. While Susan Cooper of “Spy” is refreshingly more of a capable go-getter, she too spends a majority of the film as misunderstood and underestimated. See the pattern here?
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The issue isn’t that McCarthy is getting stale — quite the contrary since each character has allowed her to do wonders with the huge personality and fearless physical comedy skills that audiences clearly relish — it’s that being tied to the hip to her comic persona is a huge career gamble. We love watching her crap in a sink and rob a fast food chain as much as the next person, but how long will it be until mainstream audiences grow tired of her currently-popular comic persona?
As fans of McCarthy, we worry because history paints a dire picture of what happens when comedians stick to their guns. Adam Sandler’s man child used to be a bonafide $100 million grosser (“The Waterboy,” “Anger Management”). Nowadays it’s an audience laughing stock (see box office disappointments “Jack and Jill,” “That’s My Boy” and “Blended”). Vince Vaughn’s underdog swagger was all the rage in the early aughts (“Dodgeball,” “Wedding Crashers”), but recent efforts “The Internship,” “Delivery Man” and “Unfinished Business” were detrimental box office bombs. Even the success Ben Stiller found playing simpletons (“Meet the Parents,” “Along Came Polly”) and cartoonish egos (“Dodgeball,” “Zoolander”) couldn’t extend to “The Heartbreak Kid,” “Tower Heist” and “The Watch.” Believe it: “Comic persona fatigue” is a real thing. The careers of Jack Black, Jim Carrey and Will Ferrell only further this claim. History assures it would be unwise for McCarthy to continue exclusively with the brash character type that has made her a household name.
Ironically, the aforementioned comedians all found some solace within the indie film community. Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch Drunk Love” (2001) was a brief respite that showed Sander’s skills could be refined and retooled given the right filmmaker. He has never given a more complex or deeply felt performance than as Barry Egan, and it’s a shame he decided to develop this dramatic side of his in lackluster mainstream efforts (“Click,” “Funny People”) and not more indie experiments. Stiller parlayed his comedic popularity into family franchises like “Night at the Museum,” which did nothing to help his comedic standing, but he’s since been catching a second wind thanks to sharply observed work in Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg” and “While We’re Young. Indies have often been the place where big-budget comedians go to redefine their careers, and McCarthy should start now while she’s sitting comfortably on top.
Finding the Potential
But the most important reason McCarthy needs indies is as simple as this: She has the skills to do way more than just play loudmouth/bawdy/physical comedic characters. Any fan of “Gilmore Girls” can tell you this, as they probably have been for the past decade, but so can key scenes in almost every mainstream comedy she has released thus far.
McCarthy’s outlandishness in “Bridesmaids” was certainly award-worthy, but the scene that earned her the Oscar nomination is when Megan comes to console Annie (Kristen Wiig) after the latter’s neurotic break. In this key moment, McCarthy’s high-personality vanishes; she fills a character we’ve been mindlessly laughing at with a surprising vulnerable depth, guaranteeing for the rest of the film we start laughing with Megan and understanding her emotional need to fit in and be one of the gals. It’s a moment without any concrete exposition explaining why Megan is the she way is, yet McCarthy’s expressions fill us in on everything we need to know in order to comprehend the character’s obsession with interdependence.
“Identity Thief” was as messy as studio comedies get, but lodged in the middle of it was a standout emotional scene in which McCarthy threw her R-rated raunch to the wind and played straight drama to remarkable effect. While explaining the truth behind her identity to Jason Bateman’s character over dinner, McCarthy finds a way to break your heart, achieving the improbable task of giving a highly repellent character a relatable core. This one scene alone provides ample proof McCarthy needs to branch out and find indie filmmakers who can further develop her dramatic skills, a vital move considering the clock is already ticking against her comic persona.
The indie world would no doubt provide McCarthy with this enticing opportunity. Look no further than last year’s “St. Vincent” as support of this claim. Playing the overworked and exhausted single mother of Jaeden Lieberher’s 12-year-old Oliver, McCarthy is a toned-down delight in every scene she’s in. She’s just as radiant as she is in her big-budget comedies, but more refined and transparent. There’s a working class tiredness that McCarthy brings to the character, and it once again helps fill out years of undisclosed history. She’s also able to substitute physical comedy for verbal comedy with nuance and aplomb, showing off her ace comic timing in a handful of sparring matches opposite Lieberher and Bill Murray.
Considering profitable comedic personas almost always run their course at the box office, more indies could guarantee McCarthy the career longevity she deserves. Plus, numerous indie directors already seem tailor made to take full advantage of the kind of vulnerability and melancholy she brings to the table, notably Lynn Shelton (“Laggies”), the Duplass Brothers (“Cyrus”), David Gordon Green (“Prince Avalanche”), Noah Baumbach (“While We’re Young”) and Sarah Polley (“Take this Waltz”). There’s also the biting Leslye Headland (“Bachelorette,” “Sleeping With Other People”) waiting in the wings should McCarthy ever want to do raunchy with a smaller price tag. The time is ripe.