So either directly from Vulture or indirectly through The AVClub today you’ll find an article that asks, “Why Does Hollywood Disrespect Melissa McCarthy?“; citing that the critics and Hollywood industry insiders seem to be gunning for her failure whether it be as a representation of oppression for her being a woman or for being an unlikely movie star. I’m not focusing on her prospects as a viable and bankable movie star, which indisputably she is, regardless of whether or not her movies even achieve critical success (her RT filmography houses more “Rotten” films than “Fresh”). What I’m focusing on is a paragraph in Mark Harris’s piece specifically about her character work: the versatility of her character work. He cites St. Vincent, Spy, Identity Thief, and most recently The Boss, suggesting that each of her characters are created and acted out in a broader range than her harsher critics would suggest. The thing is, her worse films, the ones with the characters who would be identified as annoying and crass (which offers up multiple suggestions, it’s not limited to one film), present us with a kind of character that isn’t tackled in the world of comedy film very often for female actresses: The Asshole. And personally, I think she fails at this to ridiculous effect repeatedly, without a hint of self-awareness that would make these characters work.
First of all, character work in film is severely limited within the time constraint of a film. As far as comedies go, they tend to rarely stretch the two-hour mark and shouldn’t need to if the humor and plot is constructed and concise enough. But if we’re looking at a comedy that is focused on one character (or an ensemble), than the premise takes a backseat in order for us to root out the characters we’re watching. On Television, there are hours of time allowed for characters to be fleshed out and for the humor to come from a nuanced understanding of their psychology, physiology, and emotionality, whereas on film we only have the one experience. This in turn seems to be at the cost of either developed characters or a lackluster premise.
A trend I’ve noticed in Melissa McCarthy’s films, where she is a main character mind you so St. Vincent and Bridesmaids are not included (and unsurprisingly are two of her better received films), her characters are victims of crummy childhoods. Let’s take a look at The Boss for an example: Here the prologue quickly explains that throughout McCarthy’s character Michelle Darnell’s she was passed around from foster family to foster family. However the movie never explains why this is happening, what exactly is she doing that would make this thing become repetitious? There’s an extreme disconnect in this prologue and the opening of the film that fails to show exactly how Michelle Darnell how she came into power and what she did to get there, and more importantly why did fame and success make her such a jerk to be around?
Let’s compare two other recent female-centric films really quickly: Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck and Melissa Rauch’s The Bronze. Both films very clearly show the kernel of what would spark our protagonists spiral into Assholery; one is a product of a damaged understanding of love and relationships from her father and the latter is a product of emotional stuntedness due to her father’s smothering affection and more importantly never being able to redeem herself after an injury that puts her out of gymnastics practice. We as an audience understand how the prologue establishes the psychology of our main characters and why they are the way they are when we meet them at the start of the movie. The former establishes that Character Actress Margo Martindale makes a good nun and we now have an excuse for the obnoxious behavior we’re about to watch for the next 90+ minutes.
That’s the key difference here: Excuse versus Intent. This applies to writing an Asshole character and how their actions are executed and explained in the film because one is an expactation of sympathy versus an understanding. We do not need to like the Asshole character, but we do need to understand them. Using Schumer’s and Rauch’s films again as examples, their characters are not solely defined by their raunchiness, crassness, sexuality, nor vulgarity, but by their interactions and relationships with other people. Schumer’s character has a strong relationship with her sister and father, even if her father has been a negative influence on her in her love life. Rauch’s character is horribly warped by her small-town status as a celebrity, but she actually loves and respects her town and the people who live there because they’re were there for her during her rise to fame. It makes their journey into slightly more matured and well-rounded individuals more rewarding because we know that there is substance beneath the exterior of “This woman got problems”.
In contrast, the worst of McCarthy’s filmography Tammy and Identity Thief both offer us two extremely loathsome characters who have no substance beneath their shitty exteriors. Identity Thief is bursting with the “Excuse” kind of arrogance that allows for McCarthy’s character to continuously get away with being an Asshole to everyone, specifically the people who are actually nice to her and she NEVER LEARNS ANYTHING. Up until Kathy Bates shows up, the entire duration of Tammy is an endurance of watching McCarthy flop around with a bad attitude and intolerating stupidity that never even attempts to get into the psychology of why we would ever possibly want to watch an entire film about this horribly fucking stupid woman let alone a 3 minute SNL sketch. Let me state this clearly: Neither in film nor in reality do we like talking with someone who blames their problems on someone/something else and never actually realizes that they need to take responsibility for their actions. It is not funny nor rewarding to watch a character get away with everything without reprocussion if that’s all it is. There is no heart in it. I do not enjoy Tommy Boy because Chris Farley is doing the fatty-go-boom routine, I’m enjoying it because he’s a guy trying his best despite his stupidity, his good-natured behavior balancing out the idiocy that we’re enduring. It’s about substance.
Larry David and his work on both Curb Your Enthusiasm and Seinfeld both highlight the importance of laughing at the Asshole and not laughing with the Asshole. When writing an Asshole character you need to be aware that we’re not supposed to like them; the same dichotomy that plagued The Wolf of Wall Street where some people were appalled that the movie was “glamorizing” the lifestyle and actions of those characters when in reality the intent was to absolutely emphasize just how terrible they really were. It’s their failures that make them human and there in at least understandable if not even a bit relatable.
These Asshole characters are an embodiment of our worst and nastiest impulses: saying and doing the kind of things that we so badly wish we could do but are morally obligated not to. The shock value alone cannot substitute genuine writing and character development. There are some people who cannot be redeemed, and films with these Asshole characters are capable of showing how they either will forever fail to mature and grow as people or slowly but surely at least try to make the steps to change who they are to be happier people. You cannot have it both ways; You cannot have a character be an asshole but also forgive them at every turn because they have it bad. That’s unfair and lazy writing. And writing is truly the bedrock of a good comedy. You can be a great improviser and you can ad-lib and pratfall with the best of them, but it’s all worthless if the content you make amounts to nothing but cheap laughs and shock humor. For women like McCarthy to be continuously successful in the comedy film world is remarkable in itself, but it’s the craft behind the work that will stand the test of time.