Melissa McCarthy has a new movie out, and it is not good. Worse still, that’s getting to be an old story. The talented comedian has fallen on hard times of late, and while McCarthy’s latest mistake, the Netflix venture The Starling, is at least bad in surprising ways, it still preserves an alarming run of ineptitude for one of cinema’s last remaining comic stars.
To review, McCarthybecame an immediate star with her scene-stealing and Oscar-nominated performance in 2011’s Bridesmaids. Even before that, she’d had a successful television career, with a memorable role in all seven seasons of “Gilmore Girls” and a starring turn in the CBS sitcom “Mike and Molly.” After “Bridesmaids,” she had a run of profitable studio comedies including “Identity Thief,” “The Heat,” “Tammy,” and “Spy.” Not all of these movies are good, but they were successful, and they turned McCarthy into what was then an increasingly rare commodity: a comedy star that you could build a film around. In case you hadn’t noticed, the major studios aren’t really making comedies anymore – 2018’s “Game Night” is often cited as the last good one – and McCarthy’s run of success may have been its last gasp.
Since then, it has been a case of diminishing returns for McCarthy. Audiences tolerated “The Boss” and “Ghostbusters,” looked on with amusement as she played Sean Spicer on “Saturday Night Live,” and then covered their eyes when she excreted “Life of the Party,” a bland remake of “Back to School”; “The Happytime Murders,” a raunch-fest with puppets that was the worst reviewed movie of its year; “The Kitchen,” an attempt at crime drama that was a tonal misfire,” and “Superintelligence,” in which James Corden plays an AI. Enough said about that one.
Her one recent winner was 2018’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”, which starred McCarthy as a real-life journalist who forged personal letters from legendary authors in order to pay her bills. McCarthy earned her second Oscar nomination for it, and many critics thought she deserved to win (Olivia Colman ended up winning for “The Favourite”), and while it could have launched her into a dramatic career, the particulars of that performance were not replicable. It was a rich character study held together by a taut script and thoughtful direction, and McCarthy was supported by another Oscar-nominated performance by veteran character actor Richard E. Grant.
McCarthy may have envisioned “The Starling” as her return to Oscar fare – or maybe she was just personally drawn to the story – but in the few days since it hit Netflix with little fanfare, it seems to have already been forgotten. She plays the mother of an infant child who dies of SIDS, and the film chronicles her efforts to reconnect with her husband (Chris O’Dowd), currently residing in a mental hospital, and battle with a belligerent bird that has taken up residence in her garden. It’s occasionally effective, but terribly maudlin and overstuffed with metaphors and thin characterization. O’Dowd busts out a random Borat impression in the middle of an overbearing, melodramatic monologue, so that should tell you something about the film’s tonal problems.
The failures are starting to add up, so how does McCarthy get back on the right track? The studios aren’t likely to greenlight any big comedies anytime soon, but while the streamers will, McCarthy clearly needs a new approach. Step one, I’m sorry to say, is to find a new director. Several of her recent projects have been helmed by her husband Ben Falcone. He’s competent behind the camera, but even a novice to critical film-watching can feel a difference between his movies, the Falcone-directed “Life of the Party” and “Super Intelligence,” and “Bridesmaids” or “Spy,” both of which were directed by veteran television creator Paul Feig. If McCarthy could reunite with Feig on a good script, there’s a good chance the results would improve.
She should also be on the lookout for screenplays that pair her with another major star. McCarthy is a virtuoso performer, but she’s also an excellent screen partner, a skill probably honed from her time in the Los Angeles-based improv group The Groundlings. When I think of her work in “Bridesmaids,” it’s not the sweaty, food-poisoned set piece that I remember. It’s the scene in which she gives tough love to Kristen Wiig’s Annie and asks if they can be best friends. She can deliver an unforgettable comic monologue, but she also connects, and too many of her recent films have been star vehicles for her alone. If she has the chance to pair up again with a dynamic performer like Sandra Bullock, her co-star in “The Heat,” she should jump at it.
Or maybe she should stick it out in drama. After all, “The Starling” isn’t a bad idea exactly. It’s just badly executed, and despite that, McCarthy is a watchable presence in it. Movies like “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” don’t grow on trees in Hollywood, especially for a 51-year-old female comedian, and the fact that McCarthy is maintaining a solid career in which these ups and downs are possible is already a rare accomplishment. Good for her. I just hope she finds some better scripts.