IN THE FIRST SEASON of the recently shuttered sitcom 30 Rock, Tina Fey's Liz Lemon, attractive faux-spinster and noted bossypants-in-charge, finds herself in a standoff with the writing staff. Before long there is mutiny afoot, and her underlings become violent. “Okay, fine,” Lemon says after a water bottle whizzes past her face. “Get it out of your system.” A curious barrage of workaday items proceeds to fly in her direction, including a grapefruit, some cheese puffs, running shoes, a Wiffle-ball bat, and finally — yes — a microwave. Lemon has met her threshold. “Hey, nothing that plugs in, you guys! Nothing that could really hurt me!”
“Nothing that plugs in” is an excellent, sensible rule, funny in its roundabout specificity, but it’s funny only because the microwave misses Liz Lemon’s slender frame, crashing instead into some piece of soundstage drywall. Now imagine Melissa McCarthy in the same scenario — cheese balls flying hither and thither, a microwave shuttling past her head — and picture the punchline this time. Chances are it’s less about a new rule and more about over-retaliation: McCarthy sees your microwave and raises you a flatscreen.
That’s just how Melissa McCarthy rolls, you see: head-on, balls out. If she lacks the grace of some of history’s greatest physical comediennes, from Mabel Normand to Kristen Wiig — has no time for it, in fact — she projects a bodily fearlessness that sets her apart from any forebear who comes to mind. For a hundred years, from Olive Oyl to Liz Lemon, slapstick has flirted with the notion of inflicting serious pain on the dainty female body without quite allowing it to happen. Midway through Identity Thief, McCarthy’s latest film — and first starring studio turn — she gets rammed by a muscle car traveling at full speed. It is the funniest (and, plot-wise, probably most touching) moment in the movie. My first impulse, in retrospect, was to feel bad for the car.
Over the years, film comedy has emphasized and telegraphed various aspects of femininity depending on era and context: the feeble-minded, the overearnest (she just cares too darn much!), the retaliatory (she had it coming), or the innocuously free-spirited (the zany best friend in any garden-variety rom-com, 1930 to the present). At the same time, specific women — since the very beginning of cinema — have commandeered the formal simplicities of slapstick to shape many of the comic styles we see today. The great early film critic Walter Kerr once asserted that “[n]o comedienne ever became a truly important film clown,” but “important” is surely a relative term. Consider Mabel Normand, the first dame to throw a cream pie at Chaplin, who named her as a chief comic influence. Normand was a prolific writer and director and a star in her own right; the same year she wrote and directed her first feature, 1914’s Won in a Closet, she appeared opposite Chaplin the first time he played the tramp, though her capital-M Major contributions to early film were overshadowed in her time by her substance abuse and implication in two mysterious murders.
Meanwhile, across the pond, Betty Balfour, Britain’s “Queen of Happiness,” was taking daring tumbles in her role as circus assistant in Monkeynuts (1927). And Marion Davies, whose reputation Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten have consigned to the scrap heap of misogynist punchlines, was herself a physical comedienne of no small talent: see King Vidor’s showbiz satire Show People (1928) if you’re curious what Davies was up to when she wasn’t serving as arm candy for William Randolph Hearst. Margaret Dumont stole whole great chunks out of Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy vehicles simply by maintaining her stolid mid-Atlantic dignity even as she finds herself bespattered with food and tossed in the swimming pool, all so the ingénue can get her man (or vice versa). Una Merkel and Cora Witherspoon, in a domestic arrangement whose darkness remains underestimated, went toe-to-toe with a tippling W.C. Fields in The Bank Dick (1940). And if Myrna Loy’s comedy was principally based on sensibility — a sort of peanut-gallery running commentary on the lunacy before her — then for the absolute daintiest extreme of womanly slapstick, we might look to Ginger Rogers, who knew her tumbles as well as she knew her pirouettes. Fred Astaire brought the propulsive virtuosity and ability to wear a tuxedo, but the duo’s physical comedy was firmly Rogers’ to let loose or withdraw, all with the flick of a gloved hand.
In the 1960s, as films became less dainty and television metastasized, the traditions circumscribing female slapstick have stayed more or less in place. Mary Tyler Moore brought some serious game on the Dick Van Dyke show, tripping with intent like the trained dancer she was. (An episode where she emerges from a closet riding a wave of walnuts is of particular note.) Lucille Ball had an awful lot of trouble in the chocolate factory, and boy, was she a klutz in the kitchen, but she never really got knocked around. From Cloris Leachman to Madeleine Kahn, Lily Tomlin to Goldie Hawn, Tina Fey to Kristen Wiig, each generation’s greatest comediennes have carved out comic personae largely out of the Mabel Normand playbook — a cute, carefully choreographed clumsiness — without really knowing it (and without its ever obscuring each actress’s particular genius).
Here’s where Melissa McCarthy comes in — and boy, does she nail the entrance. McCarthy — who first came to public notice on Gilmore Girls, and currently stars on Mike & Molly — is a hefty presence, in terms of both sensibility and geometry. Short, naturally pretty, with a tongue as sharp as a sushi knife, McCarthy is also portly, a fact that she exploits without ever lazily banking on it. In Bridesmaids (2011), I expected McCarthy’s character to supply the Zach Galifianakis factor: in essence, the brash and slightly creepy goofball element. Instead, she brought a frenzy of Midwestern openness gone haywire, dominating an estimable ensemble with her accidental but unapologetic gaucheries and sheer natural raunch. Chris Farley would have shaken his head and lost himself in a baritone giggle.
McCarthy gets dirty, she gets horny, and, most important, she gets the shit kicked out of her. Her comedy doesn’t inhere in, say, an elegant sense of timing (cf. Wiig), but rather in her projection of an oversized resilience against unsettling and thereby hilarious obstacles (about which more anon), not to mention her ability to script whole scenes on the fly. Put simply, McCarthy calls the bluff that slapstick has always put forward where women are concerned: the threat of violence in a world free from consequences. “Straight to the moon!” Ralph Kramden famously used to threaten his wife Alice. By this logic, McCarthy is the Neil Armstrong of the genre.
There is a measured masochism coextensive with most comedy. Someone has to lose something, and messes must be made — otherwise it’s not a joke. It is natural to turn comic pleasure into a sense of superiority; Thomas Hobbes calls laughter “nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others.” But comedy directors have a tendency to put a limit on the degradation of their starlets. Comedy, like many film genres, tends to assume a straight male viewer, and a marketable strategy from the studios’ point of view is to assume that the average male viewer, 24 to 36, will connect with a female character through either arousal or disdain. It follows, then, that female characters can be the butt of the slapstick, but never with such violence as to ruin the woman’s beholdability. The balance is this: neither to humiliate nor to disfigure the woman so much that she becomes undesirable. Cameron Diaz may style her hair with Ben Stiller’s jism in There’s Something About Mary, but the real abuse is reserved for that poor dog. As a result, slapstick comediennes (in an inadvertent inversion) very often assume roles of power. Look at The Honeymooners: Ralph shakes his fist and acts plenty mad, but Jackie Gleason wouldn’t dream of giving Audrey Meadows a black eye. Even in Punch & Judy, it’s mostly Judy who does the punching.
This year, McCarthy stars alongside Jason Bateman in Identity Thief, and you can probably guess who the straight man is in this scenario. The film is more or less a by-the-numbers Planes, Trains and Automobiles reboot, with McCarthy in the John Candy role. The plot: standup corporate family man in Denver flies to Florida to catch woman who stole his identity. The result is one of the more violent comedies in what feels like a long time. Early in the movie, Bateman beans McCarthy in the head with a heavy toaster (duck, Liz Lemon!) and proceeds to break an acoustic guitar over her neck, while McCarthy responds in purist fashion, with a punch to the throat and a knee to the groin. But despite her own peculiar brand of jiujitsu and willingness to resort to violence in pretty much any situation, it is McCarthy’s character, again and again, who takes the physical toll. This woman is quite simply used and abused by the time the film is through. After she endures a car collision in order to save his life, Bateman marvels at her prompt recovery. “You just gotta loosen your legs a little,” she tells him, hiking up her backpack and moving on to the next adventure. And you think: Is she Louis CK, the Roadrunner, or Superwoman?
Roseanne Barr could take (as well as give) a tongue-lashing, and Anna Faris meets with all sorts of punishment in the Scary Movie franchise, but watching McCarthy absorb a head-on collision with a Dodge Charger is a new and different ballgame altogether. McCarthy has crafted a comic persona that makes it okay to brutalize a woman onscreen — and not only okay, but somehow glorious, a proud and beautiful thing. Identity Thief, directed by Seth Gordon, uses McCarthy in ways that would be sheerly exploitative if McCarthy didn’t simply own each movement, moment, and scene. Watching a woman get pummeled on screen remains, for many men and women alike, a more difficult thing than watching the same thing happen to a man. What makes McCarthy special isn’t just her ability to take the hit: it’s her ability to nail the landing and then to drop the mic with a one-liner that inspires eternal devotion. She knows precisely the expectations she’s playing against, and so far, the expectations are losing.
Bear in mind that exploitation is relative. Judy Garland had Louis B. Mayer patting her on the back (when he wasn’t patting her elsewhere) and calling her “my little hunchback.” McCarthy has no such creepy patrons or five-film contracts, just a bulletproof rep within the industry and a clearly bankable screen presence; her structurally integral supporting roles in Bridesmaids and This Is 40 involved so much scene-thievery that McCarthy has finally gotten her own vehicle. (A development executive at Fox told me: “Every other script I see these days has a character described as ‘a Melissa McCarthy type.’ I’ve seen literally 100 scripts like that in the last six months. And it’s absurd — no one is like Melissa McCarthy.”) If McCarthy’s asset in Bridesmaids was a bumptious honesty — to say what once was thought but ne’er so naughtily expressed — it is a yet blunter sense of assertiveness that defines her character in Identity Thief, who is always and everywhere herself, tacitly following Henry Fielding’s notion of “conservation of character” as a prerequisite in any transgressive character. In Identity Thief, McCarthy is a fast-talking, gleeful liar, and you can almost see her character’s muscle memory fighting itself every time she resists the urge to steal or punch something. She is sexually assertive and tends to get her man. It is because she explicitly challenges generic expectations for female comics that she is so immensely appealing. It isn’t the actor’s size that allows her such a sense of liberation before the camera; another actress could perhaps less plausibly but just as funnily pull this stuff off. But actresses seeking paying jobs as sex objects are concerned first and foremost with image maintenance. It’s not a fat thing; it’s a fear thing.
This fear, in the end, does not belong principally to the actresses or the audiences but to the industry, and more precisely to a collusion between agents and producers that has maintained the status quo for so very long. The agreement seems to be that you can thumb one’s nose at Mabel Normand if you are, well, big enough — you must be this heavy to ride. Bridesmaids didn’t precisely objectify McCarthy, partially because the braintrust behind the film was at least half women. In Identity Thief, on the other hand, director Seth Gordon and screenwriter Craig Mazin take evident glee in highlighting the gross, fantastical, and sneer-worthy elements of their leading lady. Numerous critics have identified the motel sex scene as the film’s low point, a one-dimensional (and rather long) riff on the marvelous notion that fat people have sex, too. For those who care to see it, there is a real tug-of-war at work in the film: between those behind the camera, seeking to Farley-ize McCarthy, and McCarthy, who outwits them by making it impossible ever to look on her with the expected disdain. Besides being a major talent, she is a Hollywood operator: everyone is using someone, and she just happens to make sure that she’s getting the best end of the deal. (The next logical step would be to star in a nonremake, directed by a woman, where McCarthy gets a producer’s slot; one crosses one’s fingers.)
At the risk of exercising a broadly subjective lenity here, when it comes to the potentially disquieting aspects of brutalist comedy, I think everyone’s off the hook if the thing works: if it makes you, an individual human, laugh. Jonathan Swift was onto something when he wrote what remains his most famous sentence: “Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her appearance for the worse.” The joke would diminish on impact were the subject a man. McCarthy, whom Dr. Swift would probably appreciate, shares this wisdom. Following her comic muse, McCarthy has certainly flayed herself onscreen this year — and then some. She’s also essentially invented a new, seemingly elemental comic type — one rich enough that we’re unlikely to fall out of love with her any time soon.