Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

I should admit upfront that I was hesitant to give this movie a fair chance. I missed Can You Ever Forgive Me? in its initial run because I was unsure that it was anything more than Oscar Bait. An Oscar Season actor’s showcase for a once-goofy-now-serious comedian in a tonally muted biopic will never be the kind of thing I rush out to see. The talent on-hand in this particular case was too substantial to fully ignore, however, as the comedian in question is the consistently compelling Melissa McCarthy and the director behind her Marielle Heller, whose previous feature The Diary of a Teenage Girl might just be one of the best dramas of the decade. I don’t believe my initial misgivings about Can You Ever Forgive Me? were entirely inaccurate. The film’s subdued real-life subject, its predilection for montage & voiceover narration, and its relentless mood-setting jazzy score all feel like they belong to the exact kind of well-behaved, awards-seeking picture that I actively avoid. I also only got a second chance to see it in a proper theater because of those awards; after being nominated for two acting-category Oscars (and a third for Best Screenplay) it returned for a second theatrical run in New Orleans to profit off the buzz. Make no mistake: Can You Ever Forgive Me? carries the exact look, feel, and prestige you’d expect from an Oscar Season biopic featuring a comic performer acting against type. What’s wonderful, then, is how Heller & McCarthy (along with fellow subversives Richard E. Grant & Nicole Holofcener) use that structure to deliver something much more tonally & thematically challenging than it initially appears.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is dressed up like a prestige biopic, but only in the way that a mean drunk can temporarily disguise themselves as a functional, friendly human being in short social bursts before their true colors start to show. McCarthy stars as Lee Israel, a once-successful literary biographer who turns to a life of petty crime once she finds herself near-homeless, unable to successfully pitch any new projects to her publisher. Her particular talent of getting into the heads (and voices) of her literary biography subjects comes in handy when she begins to forge personal letters in their name to sell to collectors – faking correspondence with important historical artists like Dorothy Parker, Fanny Brice, and Noel Coward for minor sums of cash. The payoffs are relatively small for a grift that lands her under investigation by the FBI, but Israel seemingly has no other means to survive, as she lives precariously without a social safety net. In a lesser film, that sense of isolation & financial doom would be blamed on some social ill or systemic pitfall that failed her. Here, it’s because Lee Israel is an asshole. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is most impressive as a balancing act of admiring & sympathizing with a character while not letting them off the hook for being a drunk & an obstinate dick. Lee Israel and her only partner in crime (a fellow poverty-line drunkard played by Richard E. Grant) live by a strict “Fuck ‘em” policy when dealing with the rest of the world, an attitude that isolates them in ways that are both dangerous to their well-being & difficult for wide-audience sensibilities. It also makes for a much more relatable, satisfying picture than what was sold in its earliest ads.

The secret success of Can You Ever Forgive Me? is that it passes itself off as a well-behaved biopic, but it’s not a biopic at all. While the film does follow a somewhat notable historical figure around a long-gone 1990s NYC, it’s less a biography of Israel’s life than it is a dual character study of two very particular, very difficult people. Crude, drunk, queer, mean, proudly unemployable, and living in squalor, Israel and her sole co-conspirator have a hostile relationship with their fellow New Yorkers (and the universe at large). McCarthy plays Israel with aggressive skepticism & a permanent scowl, deathly afraid of showing a single glimpse of emotional vulnerability or sincerity. For his part, Grant goes full Quentin Crisp as her cohort, ruthlessly squeezing every cheap hedonistic thrill out of life as he can, treating his limited time on Earth as a frivolous lark. Even if you don’t see you own personal flaws & hurt reflected in these characters, it’s easy to recognize them as kindred spirits; the shithole world we live in doesn’t deserve any more sympathy or respect than they’re already giving it. Marielle Heller’s greatest achievement in this film is in inhabiting Israel’s voice & POV, the same way the infamous forger inhabited the voices of the literary figures whose graves she robbed. No matter how prickly or destructive Israel can be in the film, we never lose sight of the fact that the world let her down first, that life is a bum deal that doesn’t deserve a single ounce of effort whether or not she’s willing to give it. Whether she’s furiously railing against the fragile egos & unearned confidence of straight white men or enjoying a brief glimmer of peace in an upscale drag bar, we feel her anger, her pain, and her displacement in a world that does not want her. You cannot fake that kind of authenticity in spiritual kinship, even if Heller, McCarthy, and Holofcener are speaking for Israel, even if the vessel that contains her forged voice carries the inauthenticity of an Awards Season melodrama.

-Brandon Ledet

The Happytime Murders (2018)

Brian Henson (son of Jim) is currently being steamrolled by pro critics in his jump from directing children’s puppetry films like Muppet Christmas Carol & Muppet Treasure Island to his first feature intended for adult audiences. Most of the negativity for Henson’s The Happytime Murders (as indicated by its 27 score on Metacritic & its 21% on the dreaded Tomatometer) seems to be framed around the jaded, seen-it-all attitude that his film’s central gimmick of raunchy Muppets humor is far from a brand-new novelty, with Peter Jackson’s Meet the Feebles serving as the most often-cited comparison point. That critique feels a little empty to me, as Feebles is far from the only raunchy Muppets-But-For-Adults media setting a precedent for Henson’s film. Wonder Showzen, Greg the Bunny, Crank Yankers, and TV Funhouse have all mined the Dirty Muppets gimmick for “mature” humor post-Feebles. Better yet, Meet the Feebles itself was also preceded by over a decade by the porno-comedy Let My Puppets Come. Henson’s latest is not a Feebles knockoff so much as it’s part of an ever-expanding genre of adult puppetry, a subclass of comedy distinct enough to have its own Wikipedia page. In fact, Henson himself has participated in this genre before as executive producer of the (underseen, underrated) political punditry spoof show No, You Shut Up!, which features puppets & performers recycled & repurposed in his latest critical debacle; the unexpected joy of seeing those puppets again was admittedly a huge part of why I’m soft on The Happytime Murders overall. No, it’s not a debt to Meet the Feebles that tempers the successes of Henson’s first feature intended for adults. It’s the debt that it owes to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? that really weighs the film down (and also tarnishes Roger Rabbit’s memory in retrospect).

In Robert Zemeckis’s 1988 comedy/special effects showcase Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, live-action humans & 2D cartoons interact in an alternate-history Old Hollywood past were the toons are seen as second-class citizens. Brian Henson’s The Happytime Murders unwisely picks up that same dynamic in its Muppet & human-cohabitated LA, underlining the racial allegory of the Roger Rabbit conceit for empty, uncomfortable political satire. Melissa McCarthy is tasked to hold down the Bob Hoskins role as the too-old-for-this-shit cop with open, callous bigotry for the puppets she must interact with while working her beat. As demonstrated by Max Landis’s recent critical disaster Bright, this Roger Rabbit blueprint for racial allegory divorced from actual racial identity has not aged especially well since Zemeckis’s film was released three decades ago (at least not in the hands of white artists interpreting POC experiences). While McCarthy is reluctantly paired with a puppet partner to investigate a string of puppet murders and learns that not all puppets are so bad along the way, the audience has no choice but to squirm through each political implication of that overriding allegory in a way that detracts from the film’s central mission: comedy. Sometimes these political missteps are uncomfortable in a presumably unintentional way, like when a rabbit puppet is “humorously” indicated to have dozens of illegitimate children (because rabbits breed a lot; it’s in everyone’s best interest to read further into it). Sometimes it’s deliberately uncomfortable in an #edgy way, like when a homeless puppet performs a minstrel tap-dance for humans’ spare change on an L.A. street corner or another has their blue felt bleached to appear more like their fleshy oppressors. In either instance, the conceit is a clumsy misfire that says way more about the failed legacy of Roger Rabbit than it does about Meet the Feebles.

There are a couple Roger Rabbit-isms that The Happytime Murders does pick up to great success, however; its jokes are often funny & its noir pastiche plot makes for a genuinely engaging story. If nothing else, my first-act guess about the puppet-murderer’s identity was only half-correct, so I have some unexpected respect for the film’s ability to stage an engaging mystery. That’s not typically what I look for in a comedy, though. I’m looking to laugh, which is not at all a problem with the talent on hand: McCarthy, who is always a hoot; Elizabeth Banks bringing back some of that scenery-chewing Power Rangers energy; The Office’s Leslie David Baker, playing the exasperated police chief role he was born for; Maya Rudolph doing her best impression of Annie Potts’s 1940s secretary schtick from the original-flavor Ghostbusters. Then there’s the puppetry itself, which applies the level of artistry you’d expect from the Henson family name to novelty sex imagery like cow udders being rhythmically milked, Dalmatian dominatrices working the business end of whips, and a puppet ejaculating entire cans’ worth of silly string. The worst I can say about The Happytime Murders’s raunchy puppet humor is that a few of its jokes are openly “borrowed” from outside sources (particularly the line “Does this smell like chloroform to you?” and a bit about sewn-shut assholes lifted wholesale from a Wu-Tang skit), but that’s nothing extraordinary given the film’s overall commitment to schtick. Humor is highly subjective so there’s no accounting for what people might find funny or too old-hat in the picture, but if you have a general appreciation for the adult puppet genre (or think a ZAZ-style spoof of the noir template might be worth a chuckle) the movie delivers the dumb-comedy goods.

The Happytime Murders is a three-star comedy with a half-star critical reputation, which is not at all uncommon with this shamelessly lowbrow end of raunch & schtick. The central allegory in its human-puppet racial relations is a clumsy embarrassment, but its general sense of raunchy Muppet humor is good for a goof, especially if Meet the Feebles isn’t your only comparison point for the adult puppetry genre, as they both benefit from a lager perspective than a 1:1 comparison. This is especially true for anyone who felt betrayed by the untimely demise of No, You Shut Up! (which was tragically canceled months before our last presidential election cycle, to my personal horror). As much as I enjoyed the film more than most audiences seemed to, it never made me as happy with a sex joke as it did with an incorporation of a discarded puppet or vocal performance from that show.

-Brandon Ledet

Life of the Party (2018)

In official terms, there hasn’t been an SNL Movie since MacGruber (perhaps the artistic height of the medium) tragically died in the theaters in 2010. Long gone are the days where recurring, one-note Saturday Night Live characters like Stuart Smalley & Mary Katherine Gallagher were allowed to carry a feature-length comedy on their own. The modern SNL movie is a low-key affair, manifesting in pictures like Popstar, Sisters, and Ghostbusters (2016), where the cast is stacked with chummy SNL vets, but the premise was born outside the show. Melissa McCarthy movies are an even more rarified breed within that modern tradition, as McCarthy herself was never quite an official member of the Saturday Night Live cast. She may have hosted & cameoed so many times on the show that she seems like a natural extension of the staff and she may have started her comedy career in The Groundlings with professional besties Kristen Wiig & Maya Rudolph, but McCarthy is an SNL guest player at best (like Steve Martin in the 1970s). What’s curious about that is the way her own comedy features (especially the ones she’s collaborated on with husband/fellow Groundlings-vet Ben Falcone) feel like the lowkey, unofficial SNL comedies that most closely recall the brand’s 1990s “Every recurring character gets a movie!” heyday. Reinforced by the presence of SNL vets Chris Parnell, Maya Rudolph, and (current cast member) Heidi Gardner, the latest McCarthy-Falcone joint feels exactly like the 1990s model for the SNL Movie, only with the absurdity turned slightly down to make room for saccharine sentimentality (something McCarthy can’t help but bring to the screen between her violent bursts of slapstick). That comedic aesthetic is a kind of risk, as the classic SNL Movie is only beloved by a hopelessly dorky few, but I personally find it to be an endearing comfort, a return to the sweetly dumb movies I was raised on out of brand loyalty to SNL as an institution.

Playing a Midwestern 90s Mom character I wouldn’t be surprised to learn she’s been whipping out since The Groundlings, McCarthy stars as a middle-aged divorcee who enrolls back in college to finish a degree she abandoned for the sake of her family. As she crashes the frat & sorority party scene also inhabited by her college-senior daughter, the movie doesn’t shy away from its unavoidable similarities to the Roger Dangerfield classic Back to School. The relentless barrage of party sequences & studying montages almost make Life of the Party feel like another McCarthy-helmed, gender-flipped remake. That bawdy Dangerfield irreverence & fish-out-of-water social humor is also contrasted against a striking amount of sentimentality, however, as the movie focuses more on McCarthy’s inner journey as a woman who’s tired of being an emotional doormat than it does on her daughter’s initial horror at her presence (not to mention her sex drive). For the most part, she fits right in with the younger students, even being inducted into their sorority house as an honorary sister and finding herself a young boy-toy to wear out in the bedroom. Life of the Party is overlong, burdened by an inspo-pop soundtrack, and generally suffers from an improvisational looseness that should have spent a little more time simmering in the editing room, but I think most audiences’ biggest hurdle will be reconciling that overly earnest tone with expectations of gag-a-minute slapstick. This is a much more labored, sentimental piece than either Tammy or The Boss, the previous two McCarthy-Falcone collabs, but its sweetness isn’t necessarily a mood-killer if you’re willing to accept it as an essential part of the movie’s fabric. I still think the hedonistic, low-class excess of Tammy is the couple’s greatest collaboration to date, but Life of the Party’s warm blanket of Midwestern Mom energy has a charm of its own.

If you can withstand the crushing weight of its Hallmark sentimentality, Life of the Party also offers the simple joy of women being afforded space to be funny. In addition to the always-reliable McCarthy & Maya Rudolph, who bring a middle-aged severity to out-of-nowhere slapstick gags of explosions & crotch-shots, the movie also allows plenty of screentime for promising lesser-knowns. Heidi Gardner recalls the same nu-metal & mall goth battiness she often brings to her SNL sketches as McCarthy’s shut-in roommate. Gillian Jacobs (who should be starring in her own wide-release features by now) often runs away with the movie as coma survivor & sorority sister who drifts through life in an anarchic haze. There are many tonally sloppy reaction shots in Life of the Party that director Falcone should have paid much more attention to in the editing room, but Jacobs manages to turn her own into an art form, acting as an element of dazed chaos even when idling in the background. Her Love costar Jessie Ennis also shows promise as a relative newcomer, operating with a wide-eyed derangement as a sorority sister who wants to fit in at any cost. The way these women rally around McCarthy’s new-lease-on-life mom is so sweet it borders on surreality, affording Life of the Party a sustained, low-key joy even when specific jokes don’t land or a labored party sequence drags on into a tequila-drenched eternity. The joys of Life of the Party’s slapstick & absurdism require a patience with its saccharine earnestness & editing room looseness, especially in a year where we’ve seen that sweet/raunchy balance achieved so expertly in Blockers. I’m more than willing to put in the effort for this endearing of talent (especially from too-rarely-seen performers like Gardner & Jacobs), something I’m long familiar with as someone who was comedically raised on the SNL Movie in its heyday. I haven’t quite fallen for a McCarthy-Falcone joint with full enthusiasm since Tammy, but as long as they keep making them I’ll likely keep enjoying them. I’ve got to get my SNL Movie fix somewhere and I just don’t see a Laura Parsons or Chris Kirkpatrick movie arriving anytime soon, no matter how badly I want them.

-Brandon Ledet

Ghostbusters (2016)

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fourstar

Like most people my age (I was born in 1987), my first experience with the Ghostbusters came not in the form of the 1984 comedy classic; instead, my love for all things Ghostbusting was the result of watching the animated The Real Ghostbusters as a kid. In fact, watching the cartoon adventures of Egon, Venkman, Ray, Winston, and Janine on Saturday mornings, alongside Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Garfield and Friends, is one of my earliest memories; unlike TMNT, I can actually remember particular episodes and character types from Ghostbusters (I know that the Turtles theme song delineates each turtle’s individual personality, but that blew right past me as a kid and I couldn’t tell you which one was a “party dude” right now to save my life). I didn’t see the original film until I was a little older, and even then my clearest childhood memories of the movies actually comes from Ghostbusters II, where the pink slime that fills Sigourney Weaver’s bathtub made me terrified of the tub for a few months.

I was pretty excited to hear about the remake/reboot when it was first announced last year, but wasn’t confident that it would ever really been made and even less thrilled about how well it might turn out. I still remember hearing on the radio about a fourth Indiana Jones film as far back as 1997, when Joaquin Phoenix was in talks to play Indie’s younger brother; then, eleven years later, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull plopped into theatres on my birthday like the worst present of all time. I had mixed feelings about Paul Feig; he directed seven episodes of Arrested Development, sure, but one of those was “Ready, Aim, Marry Me,” which is probably the worst single episode of the original three season run. I was also not one of those people who was terribly impressed with Bridesmaids, although it might merely have been that I was in a terrible mood the first time I saw it. Still, Feig was heavily involved with Other Space, Yahoo’s sci-fi comedy that was released last year and which I enjoyed much more than anyone really has a right to (and which featured super cutie Karan Soni, who plays deliveryman Bennie in Ghostbusters, and Neil Casey, who plays villain Rowan North*). Still, when I saw a pic of the all-gal Ghostbusters squad all suited up and ready to bust last year, I was super on board. I retweeted the picture and expressed my excitement, even (and Feig favorited it!).

*According to the credits, fellow Other Space alums Milana Vayntrub and Eugene Cordero were also in the film, as Subway Rat Woman and Bass Guitarist, respectively, but I missed them, unfortunately.

There was (unfortunately, inevitably, and unfortunately inevitably) a backlash, mostly of the misogynistic variety, because of course there was. Of. Course. There. Was. Most of the criticism of the film had little to do with the fact that Ghostbusters is pretty much a perfect movie in a lot of ways (if inarguably a little dated in its kinda creepy sexual politics); after all, this is the primary objection that is usually voiced in response to remakes of any kind. “Why would you remake Total Recall/Robocop/King Kong/True Grit/The Manchurian Candidate/Poltergeist (etc.) when the original still holds up?” But that’s not why (a certain subset of) people were upset about Ghostbusters 2016 at all, even if they tried their best to couch their anti-woman bias in that language. Of course, the blanketing effect across the internet meant that people who were legitimately concerned about the potential artistic or financial failings of the film, especially after the not-very- good first trailer was released, were lumped in together with the rabid woman haters; as a result, those who were anxious that the film would simply fail ended up being on the side of the worst parts of the internet, meaning that there any real criticism was immediately swept away in a wave of meaningless manpain.

So, as someone whose childhood was very GB-influenced, how’s the new movie?

….

I loooooooved it. I loved it so much, y’all. Of course, it pales in comparison to the original, but that’s like saying that Canopus pales in comparison to Sirius: they’re still both pretty bright. It’s not a perfect movie, but it is a lot of fun, and I honestly can’t wait to see it again. There’s a perfect mix between nostalgia and novelty, a slew of cameos from the original cast, and a hell of a lot of laughs throughout.

The film opens with a tour of a supposedly haunted mansion that becomes a little too real for the tour guide (Zach Woods). Meanwhile, Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) is preparing for her final tenure defense at Columbia when a book about the paranormal she co-wrote many years before threatens to derail her career track. She tracks down the other author, Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) and asks her to stop pushing sales of the book long enough for her tenure to be accepted. Yates and her engineer officemate Dr. Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) agree, as long as Gilbert assists them in investigating the mansion. Following a genuine encounter with a ghostly entity, all three women find themselves rejected from academia. Meanwhile, MTA employee and amateur historian Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) has a strange encounter with commuter Rowan North (Neil Casey), then follows him down to a subway tunnel where he plants a device that summons a ghost from which Patty barely escapes. The three parascientists set up shop above a restaurant in Chinatown and hire hunky dingbat Kevin (Chris Hemsworth) as their receptionist, and Patty invites them to check out the ghost in the tunnels beneath the city. From there, the Ghostbusters become a legitimate team, and the story builds until the four of them face off against an entity that threatens to destroy New York.

First, the negatives: this film lacks a lot of the New York flavor that permeated the first Ghostbusters and its sequel, although I’d argue that this was inevitable given the overall Disneyfication and general enforced conformity that New York has undergone since the Giuliani administration (Sam Delaney’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue is required reading on this subject, if you can find a copy). Still, it’s impossible to ignore how much that affects the overall tone of this film in comparison to the original. Further, the original Ghostbusters is a film that has a very dry wit, and although that same temperament is here, the comedy is a little more broad (no pun intended) and varied: there’s slapstick, improvisation, and your standard jokes tied in with the more sardonic wit that characterized the eighties flicks. Here, instead, the film runs the gamut from very dry (the mansion tour guide notes that the mansion that opens the film had the best contemporary security measures at the time of construction, including a fence specifically designed to keep out Irish immigrants) to the more over-the- top (Andy Garcia, as the mayor of New York, blows his lid when Dr. Gilbert compares him to the mayor from Jaws, in one of the film’s funniest moments).

There are other negatives. The music choices in the film are terrible, frankly, outside of the revisitations of the original GB theme and its derivations. There’s an extended sequence in which the team captures a ghost at a nü-metal concert, and the music playing throughout is utter garbage, but even that sounds like the music of the angels in comparison to the closing credits theme “Good Girls” by Elle King, which stands out as possibly the shittiest pop song of the new millennium. There’s also a slight editing problem in a few sequences where it is apparent that a scene has been cut. For instance, it seems like the big psychokinetic dance sequence that plays out over the end credits might once have been part of the film proper, but that’s not terribly distracting on the whole. There also may have been a cut subplot in which Gilbert leaves the team after one of their very public outings that ends with a fake arrest, but that’s also not a problem for me (honestly, the sooner someone takes the “team member rejects the group but then comes back in the end” third act subplot out into a field and puts it out of its misery, the better). I also didn’t love the “battle sequence” toward the end of the film, but that’s more a statement about the the state of modern film structure than a complaint that’s specific to this particular movie.

As far as other things that people have had negative criticism for, I don’t really agree. I’ve heard complaints that some of the improv jokes go on a little too long, but I’m not bothered by them. I’ve also seen much hay being made about Patty’s being a blue collar worker and not a scientist like the three other (white) women in the group, but I found her to be a delight and not at all the potentially troublesome stereotype that she was presented as in a few of the trailers. There are some people out there who are intent on finding something to hate in the film, especially anything that seems “man hating,” but there’s so little of it and it’s so toothless in comparison to the generally misogynistic tone of most media that it won’t bother you unless you go looking for it (for instance, the fact that one of the ghosts takes a crotch shot is something I’ve seen a great deal of discussion about, as if hits to the groin aren’t a staple of comedies with brows both high and low).

Overall, however, the film is great. There’s a lot of great parallelism between Gilbert and Rowan, and the way that each fights or assists supernatural evil with science and technology. There’s very overt humor throughout as well as more subtle moments, and there’s a lot to enjoy whether you’re a fan of old school Ghostbusters or not. None of the characters are direct one-to- one parallels with Egon and the gang (although Holtzmann has Egon’s cartoon hair, which I love), and the story feels fresh and new while retaining echoes of the past. One of the best visual gags in the original GB is when Egon activates Ray’s “unlicensed nuclear accelerator” in the hotel elevator, and then he and Venkman subtly move away from the proton pack, as if a few extra inches would really make a difference; there’s a similar scene in this film in which two of the Ghostbusters inch away from an activated device in the alley where they test their equipment. It’s subtle, but there’s a lot of love and respect for Ghostbusters as a franchise in this film, no matter what you’ve heard. Some of the more slapsticky moments went on a little long for me, but there’s too much fun to be had to stick your head in the sand and ignore this movie just because the ‘Busters aren’t the same ones that you grew up with. And, hey, if Dave Coulier replacing Lorenzo Music as the voice of Venkman in The Real Ghostbusters or the creation of the Slimer! shorts to pad out the Slimer and the Real Ghostbusters hour didn’t destroy the Ghostbusters legacy, this certainly won’t either.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Boss (2016)

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three star

My expectations may have been a little too high for The Boss. I geeked out pretty hard last year when I finally caught up with Melissa McCarthy’s first feature film team-up with her husband Ben Falcone, Tammy, which I called in my review “the culmination of what McCarthy has been building towards since her long line of hot mess characters began in 2011.” That’s a lot for a sophomore follow-up to live up to, so it was unlikely that I was ever going to enjoy the McCarthy-Falcone production The Boss quite as much as I did Tammy. It’s a funny, serviceable, occasionally absurd comedy that McCarthy & Falcone obviously had a great time bringing to the screen, but it’s difficult to get too excited about the film because I’ve already seen them do so much better. There’s a darkness & go-for-broke inanity to Tammy that I feel is somewhat lacking in the much more restrained The Boss and the resulting film feels a little generic in its absence.

Part of the problem might be that The Boss takes a little too long to get rolling. The titular pure id monster Tammy is entirely recognizable as a complete character almost as soon as she’s introduced. The Boss‘s Michelle Darnell (a character McCarthy developed many years back in The Groundlings), on the other hand, requires a little groundwork. A product of group homes & orphanages, Darnell is a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps cliche that became a wealthy, deeply strange cocktail of Nancy Grace, Paula Dean, Martha Stewart and any self-motivation guru you could think of who would write a book titled Money Talks Bullshit Walks through sheer gumption & will. You have to wait for her to get to the top, get knocked off her throne (by some well-deserved insider trading charges), and then find a second life as an entrepreneur helming a Girl Scouts knockoff that sells treats for profits instead of charity (in blatant violation of child labor laws) before the film really gets rolling. There’s a good fifteen, twenty minutes of labored exposition required to get Darnell in full swing and once she gets there the quiet moments between her sadistically self-absorbed, petty line of dark humor soften the film’s punch & pace more than I’d like. There’s a movie just as subversively dark & self-deprecating as Tammy hiding somewhere in The Boss, but it’s noticeably bogged down & muddled in a way its predecessor wasn’t.

McCarthy is still funny here whenever she’s allowed fully misbehave & indulge in oversexed, money-obsessed misanthropy. The Boss also has a great back-up crew of small role supporting actors in Peter Dinklage, Cecily Strong, Kathy Bates, Kristen Schaal, and Neptune, Caifornia’s own Kristen Bell. Reno 911‘s Cedric Yardbrough has a wonderfully absurd, one-note bit role as a surreally agreeable yes-man named Tito that nearly steals the show, but isn’t given enough screen time to fully commit (there’s a moment at the climax where I was pretty bummed that Tito didn’t swoop back in on a helicopter to save the day despite the fact that it would’ve made very little sense narratively). Besides the talent on deck, The Boss also has a great central message about the value of camaraderie among women & the unexpected ways make-shift families can form around even the most undeserving. I like it okay as a generic comedy with a talented lead & a wickedly petty mean streak, but Tammy felt like a much more special moment in McCarthy’s career (not that it did any better with mainstream outlets & audiences critically-speaking). I like to think that this film was wish-fulfillment for McCarthy & Falcone, who obviously were proud to bring Darnell to such a wide audience, but that they have much more subversive, sadistic comedy work still ahead of them. I’ve seen them pull it off before.

-Brandon Ledet

Spy (2015)

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fourstar

campstamp

The absurdist genre-spoof comedy that hit its apex with cult classics like ZAZ’s Airplane & Top Secret has sadly become a dying art in recent years. Titles like Not Another Disaster Movie & Scary Movie 19 have tarnished the genre’s cultural cachet and more or less reduced its target audience to twelve year old boys who are emotionally stunted even for twelve year old boys. There have been a couple great exceptions in the past decade that give me hope for the genre’s future, though. The Judd Apatow comedy Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, while posed as a spoof of the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, was a brilliant take-down of the entire biopic genre. Walk Hard somehow included every single biopic cliché & American genre of music into one silly, but intellectually extensive spoof. The Will Forte vehicle MacGruber did more or less the same thing with the violent action flick genre that saw its heyday in the 1980s. The difference is that instead of limiting itself to brilliant send-ups of films like Commando & Cobra, MacGruber went a step further and created one of the most vile, pathetic protagonists in all of cinema. Both Walk Hard & MacGruber breathed fresh air into the genre-spoof, but they’re just two titles in a sea of bad examples.

After a single viewing of Spy at the theater, I’m already confident enough to include it along with Walk Hard & MacGruber on the list of the best spoof movies of the past decade. Sure, the James Bond international spy genre has been spoofed before in movies like Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, Casino Royale (1967), and Our Man Flint, but Spy distinguishes itself from its predecessors by feeling distinctly modern. There’s a self-aware, crass irreverence to the film that feels distinctly 2015. Although it’s riffing on an entirely different genre, Spy is very much in the vein of MacGruber more than it is in the very 90s Austin Powers. Besides the general crassness of its script & general improv-enhanced vibe of its sense of humor, Spy also continues MacGruber’s undermining of alpha male action movie types that turns the typical hero (this time as a frivolous side character hilariously played by Jason Statham as opposed to MacGruber’s central protagonist) into vile worms of the lowest order. As Statham’s misogynist prick brags to the main character that he is immune to 179 varieties of poison & can water-ski blindfolded, it’s easy to see how an exact MacGruber successor would’ve been born if he was the central character, but Spy is smart to leave him sidelined while the more morally-palatable, but just as crass Melissa McCarthy serves as a much more relatable audience surrogate.

McCarthy hit her creative peak for me last year with the goofy road trip comedy Tammy, which felt like a wonderful culmination of everything she’s been building towards since Paul Feig’s breakout comedy Bridesmaids. Feig, who also worked with McCarthy on the similarly crass buddy cop comedy The Heat, finds an entirely new kind of role for her to play in Spy. In Tammy, McCarthy was a complete mess, more raccoon than human in her thoughtless pursuit of laze-about surface pleasures. While I found that character incredibly charming, she was a far cry from the in-over-her-head every-woman McCarthy plays so well in Spy. There are flashes of Tammy’s feral nature in Spy, but they’re dialed back enough to allow McCarthy to shine though as a relatable human being. With Spy, Feig has not only created a modern classic in genre spoofery, but also helped to open a door for an incredibly talented comedic actress who’s more or less hit a typecasting wall she hasn’t been able to sidestep since her wonderful turn on Gilmore Girls nearly a decade ago. Let’s hope he can keep the productive streak going when he works with her on their fourth film in a row together, the all-female cast Ghostbusters reboot.

-Brandon Ledet

Tammy (2014)

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fourstar

Tammy is unmistakably a passion project for actress/comedian Melissa McCarthy. Ever since her career-making turn as a hot mess in Bridesmaids, McCarthy has been unfortunately typecasted as an obnoxious slob, so it seems peculiar that a film she personally developed with her first-time writer/director husband Ben Falcone would again have her fill that role. Instead of feeling like more of the same, however, Tammy feels like the culmination of what McCarthy has been building towards since her long line of hot mess characters began in 2011. Structurally, the film plays like a genre exercise in the vein of a standard road trip/buddy comedy that throws generic plot points at the audience as if they’re somehow still surprising despite their over-familiarity. However, Tammy’s strict genre adherence is a merely a front, a platform for the dark, irreverent working class comedy the film really is at heart.

The character Tammy (nearly every character is known by just their first name here: Pearl, Earl, Lenore, Bobby, etc.) is almost instantly familiar to the audience. As we follow her through an especially shitty day in which she loses a car, a job, and a husband, she not only builds on the personality McCarthy has developed since Bridesmaids, but she also establishes herself as a descendant of a long line of have-vs-have-nots comedic characters. Tammy is like a complicated black comedy cocktail with equal parts Strangers With Candy (sharing Jerri Blank’s near feral human-raccoon nature) , Roseanne (with her disinterest in feigning poise), Observe & Report (in her tendency to obscure her crippling depression with outsized bravado), Tommy Boy (in that she destroys everything she touches, but in an endearing way), and Freddy Got Fingered (in both her irreverence & her interaction with dead animals, though both of those factors are thankfully toned down). It’s a hilariously bitter formula that’s just as delightful as it is depressing. Tammy is an eternal fuckup with no discernible promise in her future, but she’s also refreshingly honest & super friendly. Her nature is best understood in a scene where she’s ineptly robbing a fast food restaurant while making friends & plans to hang out with the employees she holds at gunpoint. No one describes Tammy better than she does herself when she says “A little taste of Tammy and you’re going to come clammering back for more. I’m like a Cheeto; you can’t eat just one.” Her character (and in some ways the movie itself) is the personification of junk food; Tammy is cheap, cheesy, and most likely bad for you, but she’s also potently delectable.

In addition to Tammy’s penchant for finding somber humor in poverty, alcoholism, and depression, it’s also subversive in the way it swaps the traditional gender roles in the road trip & buddy comedies it emulates (the same way The To Do List subverted teen sex farces in 2013). Not only is the titular Tammy not the gender you’d expect in a crude, bumbling buffoon protagonist in this genre, she’s also surrounded by a large cast of hilarious women, with the film’s men taking largely a backseat role. The always-welcome Allison Janney & Kathy Bates both have great turns as Tammy’s uptight mother & boisterous lesbian aunt, respectively, but it’s Susan Sarandon that steals the show as Pearl, Tammy’s alcoholic, pill-addicted fuckup drunk of a grandmother. Even though it’s a story we’ve all seen told before, the film’s most heartfelt moments are when Tammy & Pearl drop the self-righteous posturing and bond as two vulnerable people, like in the scene where Pearl reveals that she was in a sexual relationship with “the wrong” Allman Brother and Tammy confesses that she got fingered by Boz Scaggs (but it’s okay, because “it turns out it wasn’t Boz Scaggs”). The film not only allows its women to misbehave in unconventional ways, it also limits the roles its male characters are allowed to fill. The only two male characters of note are played by Gary Cole, who essentially serves as a drunken bimbo for Pearl to conquer, and Mark Duplass, who plays the central character’s way too attractive & emotionally stable love interest, defined only by the depthless selflessness he offers the world. It’s an exact gender reversal of traditional slapstick farces.

Of course, Tammy is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea (or flavor of Cheeto). In fact, Deadspin named it the worst film of last summer, calling it “an ill-conceived nightmare from the beginning, starting with its star’s basic misunderstanding of what makes her an appealing actress in the first place. (It’s not the pratfalls; it’s the energy and warmth behind them).” I think there’s a lot of genuine warmth & some truly bizarre energy behind Tammy’s character that you can miss if you’re not on the movie’s wavelength (despite the character’s self-explanation that she’s like junk food & her love interest’s constant reassurance that she’s lovably honest & “real”). As with most comedies, your enjoyment is ultimately going to boil down to whether or not you find the film funny. Sure, it has its faults: the heart it tries to grow at its clichéd climax is less than compelling; there is an unfortunate featured inclusion of Macklemore on the soundtrack that will surely date the film; it’s relentlessly dumb & gross, etc. However, those faults are inherent to the genre-framework it operates within. For fans of this brand of subversively dark, lowbrow, working-class farces (from the titles mentioned above to other little-loved features like Brothers Solomon & Dirty Work) Tammy has plenty of charm to spare and a refreshing take on the gender roles established by its predecessors. McCarthy may not be playing to the height of her talents here (she’s an impressive dramatic actress when given the chance), but she has constructed a character and a film that are a welcome addition to a long tradition of surprisingly bitter junk food comedies.

-Brandon Ledet