Critic's Notebook: Will Melissa McCarthy’s Box-Office Clout Be Her Artistic Downfall?

Courtesy of Hopper Stone/ Universal Studios

McCarthy's box-office power is a triumph for women in Hollywood, but the impact it seems to be having on her art is decisively less positive.

Does a pileup of negative reviews for a nearly laugh-free comedy matter when you’re laughing all the way to the bank? The film in question is The Boss, the latest letdown among Melissa McCarthy’s eagerly watched, uneven choices as a movie star. Her box-office success has been anything but uneven, though, and there’s little doubt that the new pic is poised to ring up triumphant grosses like Spy, Tammy, The Heat and Identity Thief before it. 

A pummeling by critics rarely has stood in the way of market clout. And clout might be McCarthy’s primary concern for now. Or, notwithstanding the fleeting glimmers of shocking hilarity in The Boss, maybe she’s settled into a counterproductive comfort zone. 

In the few short years since her breakout role in Bridesmaids, McCarthy has enjoyed a steady stream of green lights for starring vehicles — no small feat in the notoriously male-centric culture of Hollywood. But only last year’s Spy has fully delivered on the promise of her bracingly original supporting turn in Bridesmaids. Like the other features she’s toplined that have been shaky showcases for her talent, The Boss strains for laughs at the same time as it feels dispiritingly lazy. Even the end-credit outtakes aren’t funny. 

McCarthy is hardly the first comedy star to make bad movies; from Adam Sandler to Kevin Hart to Tina Fey, that list is long. But there’s an especially sharp sense of disappointment when her work misses the mark. That’s because with her kewpie doll dimples and zingy vulgarity, her razor-sharp timing and knack for physical comedy, she’s a powerhouse comic performer. 

She’s also a showbiz phenomenon. In a well-established tradition, Hollywood relegates actors whose looks or body type it deems unconventional to the sexless sidekick role. But McCarthy has been unrepentantly sexual in all her films, sometimes hilariously so. As Megan in Bridesmaids, her midflight come-on to her seatmate (played by the actress’s husband, Ben Falcone), is one for the ages. McCarthy is the big screen’s first take-no-prisoners dame since Mae West, but without being limited to a single persona. 

That considerable comedy savvy is tempered by a grounding self-awareness and, to varying degrees, warmth. So far she’s clicked best with Paul Feig at the helm, not only because of strong scripts — particularly for Bridesmaids and Spy — but because the material gives her room to match her farcical stunts and dazzling wordplay with full-blooded characterizations. 

The endearingly abrasive Megan is a character beyond category, someone you figure out moment by moment, just as you would if confronting her in real life. She is, after all, someone who casually announces that she recently fell off a cruise ship and who thinks that Fight Club would be a good theme for a bridal shower. Certainly a lot of the credit for her idiosyncrasies goes to screenwriters Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo. But McCarthy takes the material and runs with it, fearlessly. Her portrayal is as subtle as it is deliriously broad. 

She and Feig take that volatile mix to exuberant heights with her lead turn in Spy, a movie perfectly tailored to her gifts. As an unlikely CIA operative with the emblematically bland name of Susan Cooper, McCarthy serves up brilliant slapstick while digging into rich layers of performance. Amid all the spoofy insanity, there are flashes of hope, fury and vulnerability in Cooper’s watchful eyes. 

By comparison, The Boss gives us a skit character: Michelle Darnell, an über-capitalist whom McCarthy concocted when she was, in fact, doing skit comedy as a member of the Groundlings improv troupe. Teaming with Falcone and Steve Mallory on the screenplay, McCarthy presents an unpopped kernel of an idea. 

One of the most disappointing aspects of the new movie, which finds Falcone back in the director’s chair after the little-loved Tammy, is its surface treatment of a potentially charged, of-the-moment character. Darnell, eventual leader of a girl-power army in raspberry berets, is a flammable cocktail made from equal parts Martha Stewart, Leona Helmsley, Tony Robbins and Suze Orman, with a strong dose of Trumpian bluster for good measure. But instead of searing satire about the 1 percent, we get standard high jinks. As in the painfully stupid Identity Thief, the class divide is a plot point, lightly touched upon rather than addressed head-on, and the movie rushes to wrap a would-be villain in the welcoming hug of sitcom conformity. 

With Mike & Molly about to end a six-year run, McCarthy is no stranger to situation comedy. That would perhaps make her amenable to the mainstream movie conventions that require upbeat, neatly bow-tied endings. Maybe she feels at home reaching for as wide an audience as possible (talk about welcoming hugs!). Her big-screen missteps tend to veer into that unfortunate territory where “relatability” is the ultimate goal and performances strive for approval. In McCarthy’s case, it’s not just unfortunate but unnecessary; she’s already terrifically likable — in part because of her down-to-earth qualities but, more than that, because of the intelligence and complexity she effortlessly conveys. 

Those strengths always shine through, even in such flat contrivances as Pretty Ugly People and St. Vincent or such middling genre riffs as The Heat. Whether her character is being reasonable or spewing invective, or both — see her heroically disastrous response to two smooth manipulators in This Is 40 — McCarthy isn't doing shtick. She's alive in the moment, and we naturally root for her.

Michelle Darnell may be near and dear to her, but how can we not feel let down when McCarthy settles for weak yuks instead of aiming high? We know what she’s capable of. 

Her fans, critics included, await this summer’s Ghostbusters in hopes that McCarthy, Feig and Wiig will repeat the ensemble magic of Bridesmaids. It was the movie that unleashed her one-of-a-kind anarchic energy on an unsuspecting public. Alas, having become that rare Hollywood entity, a woman flexing box-office muscle, McCarthy might at this point need comic anarchy less than her audience does. 

And we do — we really, really do.