Excess Hollywood: Melissa McCarthy is a rising star

Since her hilarious supporting turn in 2011’s “Bridesmaids,” Melissa McCarthy has become nearly inescapable.

The first time this fact really hit home for me was last December, during a screening of Judd Apatow’s “This is 40,” when the comedienne appeared as Catherine, a short-tempered parent who complains to the school principal after Debbie (Leslie Mann) makes an unfavorable comparison between Catherine’s towheaded, buck-toothed son and musician Tom Petty. It’s a throwaway part, with perhaps eight minutes of total screen time, but McCarthy uses those eight minutes to practically walk away with the movie, calling the attractive, affluent Debbie and her husband Pete (Paul Rudd) a “bullshit bank commercial couple” and threatening to kick them both in the throat for being ineffectual parents.

My enjoyment of that scene, and the even funnier mid-credits gag reel, was only diminished by the fact that I’d already seen McCarthy twice that same evening, in trailers for the now-released “Identity Thief,” where McCarthy plays a chipper, foulmouthed criminal who steals Jason Bateman’s credit card information, and director Paul Feig’s “Bridesmaids” follow-up, “The Heat,” where she plays a chipper, foulmouthed policewoman who teams up with Sandra Bullock, who plays a frazzled FBI agent. I understand she’s also slated for a chipper, foulmouthed part in this May’s “The Hangover: Part III.” Having successfully defied expectations for a heavyset woman in a thin-centric industry, McCarthy must now confront another Hollywood pitfall: the double threat of becoming simultaneously typecast and overexposed.

If this happens, she’ll be in good company. Actors like Ben Stiller, Julia Roberts, Adam Sandler, Bruce Willis and Owen Wilson have all been accused of playing too many similar roles. Quick, how many movies can you name where Seth Rogen plays a loveable stoner or Denzel Washington calmly asserts himself as a professional badass? Some, like Mike Myers, wallow in their gravy train and gradually slide into irrelevance. Others, like Jude Law and post-“Lincoln Lawyer” Matthew McConaughey, break free of weak material and obvious casting and go on to explore richer veins of character acting.

In the last few years, two dramatic actors have paved the way for avoiding viewer fatigue by turning in a wide array of diverse and compelling performances. After breaking into the mainstream with a small role in “Inglourious Basterds” and an incendiary turn as young Magneto in “X-Men: First Class,” Michael Fassbender showcased his range as psychoanalyst Carl Jung in “A Dangerous Method,” a tortured sex addict in “Shame” and a curious replicant in last summer’s “Prometheus.” Current Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain also believes in never repeating herself, having embodied idealized motherhood in “Tree of Life” only months before diving into “Zero Dark Thirty” and the mind of a CIA agent obsessed with killing Osama bin Laden.

So, can McCarthy avoid falling into the exposure trap? Her comedy bona fides are impressive, and it’s not as if she materialized out of nowhere. Before the success of “Bridesmaids,” she’d been quietly paying her dues for the better part of a decade on TV sitcoms like “Gilmore Girls” and the still-running “Mike & Molly.” But it was her wacky, winsome performance as bridesmaid Megan that catapulted her into the national spotlight, earning her scores of adoring (and incredibly protective) fans. When New York Observer film critic Rex Reed published a review of “Identity Thief” describing McCarthy as “a female hippo” and “tractor-sized,” McCarthy’s online following descended to collectively tear him a well-deserved new one.

Reed’s cruel and unprofessional comments aside, “Identity Thief” is a lazy, obnoxious belch of a movie that represents the exact sort of project McCarthy would do well to avoid, although it does allow her one scene where her character Diana opens up to Sandy (Bateman), explaining where she comes from and why she has chosen a life of crime.

In context, her tearful confession is completely out of sync with the rest of the film and contributes to its borderline nonsensical third act. The same scene works beautifully, however, when viewed as a standalone piece, mostly because of McCarthy’s worn-down vulnerability and her undeniable gift for improvisation. That’s the Melissa McCarthy I paid to see, and I’d love to see more of her in the future.

  • Updated Feb. 25, 2013 at 12:54 am
  • Edited by Morgan Said