Soft-hearted, middle-of-the-road comedies — that is the brand Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone have established in their three previous films together. With McCarthy as star and sometimes co-writer, and Falcone as director and writer, the real-life married couple have turned out the innocuous, mildly funny Life of the Party (2018), The Boss (2016) and Tammy (2014). Their latest, Superintelligence, originally set for theaters but now premiering on HBO Max, comes from the same cookie-cutter.
McCarthy plays Carol Peters, who eight years ago left a big, unspecified job at Yahoo to do some good in the world. We first see her at a Seattle street fair trying to get people to adopt puppies. But she’s ready for a job and during an interview is mocked as “the most average person on Earth.” An Artificial Intelligence that has become sentient and capable of wiping out humanity overhears, and makes Carol the representative of all people, giving her a few days to prove that humans are worth saving.
It’s a fine idea to applaud ordinary people, but a film about the most average person on Earth shouldn’t be completely ordinary itself. McCarthy can make Carol likable and relatable but even someone as talented as she is can’t make this earnest do-gooder interesting. Written by Steve Mallory, who co-wrote The Boss with McCarthy and Falcone, Superintelligence is a mashup of common screen elements: a romance, a best friend, a tinge of sci-fi, sentimentality and a ticking clock on lethal danger for the hero. All those elements are handled with a sense of just walking through the paces.
The cast, though, is full of extraordinary actors, who do what they can to redeem a lame script and style. James Corden is the AI’s voice and occasionally its physical image. The actor playfully becomes his own avatar. The AI first introduces itself to Carol by taking over every appliance in her apartment, turning on her coffeemaker, appearing on her television in the form of a swirling blue screen saver, talking in an ominous male voice that is not Corden’s. Carol is discombobulated, so the AI’s voice changes to Corden’s. “Is this carpool karaoke?” she asks hopefully because she is a Corden fan. The AI says that his algorithm informed him Corden’s voice would calm her down, and it does through the rest of the film. It reassures the audience, too, making the threat of annihilation seem pretty remote. But come on, we knew that. McCarthy and Falcone are not likely to destroy the world, are they?
Brian Tyree Henry has the thankless role of Carol’s best friend, Dennis, conveniently a tech expert at Microsoft (the namechecking in this film goes on). He is the one person she confides in about the AI. When speaking to Dennis, the AI’s comforting voice becomes Octavia Spencer’s, a clever moment that flies by too fast. Bobby Cannavale is game in the nonsensical role of Carol’s ex, George, the guy she regrets having broken up with a few years before. The AI, suddenly a softie for romance, helps her try to rekindle their relationship in the short time humanity might have left.
George is a creative writing teacher who in three days — just when the world might end, what a wild coincidence — is leaving for a year-long fellowship at Trinity College in Dublin. Yet this fellowship-winning brainiac is also an average Joe. Maybe he’s just a less than average lunkhead, because when the superintelligence leads Carol to run into him at a grocery store, she finds him sniffing garbage bags. George makes less and less sense as the film goes on, acting like a giddy fanboy when he meets his baseball idol (Ken Griffey Jr. in a pointless cameo) at a Mariners game.
Sam Richardson (so funny, so often underused) and Falcone have small roles as hapless NSA agents, who turn up after Dennis alerts the government to the AI’s scheme. They kidnap and briefly keep Carol, because what’s a rom-com without someone throwing a black hood over the heroine’s head and tossing her into a van. Falcone and Richardson offer some of the liveliest moments, simply because their droll, off-hand delivery puts a spin on tired material.
One stock sequence follows another. Carol gets a makeover, with McCarthy posing in outrageous costumes until she finds a beautiful jumpsuit. There is a running gag about her self-driving Tesla, which seems to have a mind of its own because the superintelligence is controlling it. The AI, like a Cyrano in Carol’s ear, guides her romance. It makes a dinner reservation at the little Mexican restaurant where she and George find themselves in the middle of festive singing and dancing. There are wasted scenes in a situation room where Jean Smart as the U.S. president looks worried while the government tries to thwart the AI. The scenes move swiftly enough and are not badly done, just way too familiar.
Visually, the film is as generic and jumbled as the plot, with some pretty but conventional overhead views of Seattle. A big, lush apartment the AI sets up for Carol in a single day adds a dash of real estate porn.
McCarthy’s most hilarious films, of course, have been directed by Paul Feig: Bridesmaids, The Heat and Spy. And in Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? she proved she can play drama with a beautiful, light touch. Her collaborations with Falcone, by contrast, are timid. They are not blockbusters, but do well enough so that the pair keeps churning them out every couple of years in this steady, unexceptional way.
Production Company: New Line Cinema
Distributor: HBO Max
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Bobby Cannavale, Brian Tyree Henry, James Corden, Jean Smart
Director: Ben Falcone
Screenwriter: Steve Mallory
Producers: Melissa McCarthy, Ben Falcone, Rob Cowan
Cinematography: Barry Peterson
Production Designer: Jefferson Sage
Editor: Tia Nolan
Music: Fil Eisler
Casting: Allison Jones, Kris Redding