The Movie Club

Melissa McCarthy’s Spy suggests how comedy can survive in the outrage era.

Entry 2: Spy, Miss You Already, Jem and the Holograms, and other movies snobs dismiss out of hand.

Melissa McCarthy in Spy.
Melissa McCarthy in Spy.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo courtesy of Larry Horricks/Twentieth Century Fox.

Hola, my film critic friends! I’m in Cartagena, Colombia, where I flew hoping to escape the tractor beam of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. No such luck. Yesterday I waited in line to bathe in a mud volcano behind a woman in an R2-D2 swimsuit. As a maracas salesman I met that night put it, “La Guerra de las Galaxias es la mejor.”

I bet we’ll get more into The Force Hits the Snooze Button later this week, but I couldn’t be happier with the film. Not because it’s great. Because it’s perfectly mediocre—an OK movie like any other OK movie, which is how, as a Star Wars agnostic, I’ve always felt about the entire franchise. Now everyone can admit it. Curiously, the upcoming Episode VIII is the first I’m truly hyped for, and for one reason: writer-director Rian Johnson.* He’s a filmmaker with the full power of the Force, and after Looper I’m first in line for any movie he makes, Wookiees or no. That dazzling hack J.J. Abrams got saddled with the banal setup episode. Now Johnson is free to blast off somewhere creative.

But let’s go back to the underdogs of 2015, i.e.. every other movie. Dana, hooray for our mutual love of Spy! I even watched it again on my flight to Colombia, the true test of loyalty. (Do you guys agree that the hardest part of being a critic is realizing you’ve seen every movie on the in-flight TV?) I wonder if, like me, any of you dreaded sitting down for Spy, expecting yet another slugfest wherein Melissa McCarthy is “hilariously” humiliated. The trailers sure made it look that way, all those mugging shots of McCarthy falling over and wearing cat-lady sweatshirts.

How wonderful that Paul Feig spun that joke on its head, making fun instead of the oblivious snobs that can’t see that McCarthy’s character is a brilliant badass. Feig and McCarthy also managed to break my heart. I’ll set up an early scene for people who haven’t seen it: McCarthy’s CIA partner Jude Law takes her out to a swanky restaurant and presents her with a jewelry box. She’s hoping for romantic diamonds; instead, it’s a garish plastic cupcake necklace. The bitter punchline has three beats: First, McCarthy is quietly heartbroken. Second, Law pressures her to wear the monstrosity and ruin her tasteful outfit. Third, when Law is immediately murdered, she clutches the pendant at his funeral, embracing the insult.

Spy is the model for how modern comedy can bridge that increasingly perilous gulf between political correctness and wild courage. It survives by acknowledging, then decimating stereotypes. (For a second example, check out Hannibal Buress’ handyman subplot in the Will Ferrell-Mark Wahlberg comedy Daddy’s Home, another unexpected winner.)

Comedy is being forced to evolve, lest it be hounded to extinction by think pieces and Twitter outrage. So, too, are critics. Film is on the front lines of cultural change, which this year obligated critics to attempt incisive pieces on transsexuality in The Danish Girl and Tangerine. I suspect The Danish Girl got a soft pass from critics who were scared of saying something impolitic. Instead, they simply deemed it “inspiring!” “noble!” “uplifting!” and then filed the copy and moved on to something safer, like bashing Victor Frankenstein.

I found it much more satisfying to applaud Tangerine—boy, what a blast! Glad to see it on Dana and David’s lists. Sean Baker’s comedy about two transgender prostitutes on Christmas Eve, shot on an iPhone 5, gave me that moment—I think you guys know what I’m talking about—when you realize you’re watching something brand-new and electric. We critics live for that jolt. And then we have to put that excitement into words, which is where it gets tricky. I know one critic who adored Tangerine yet was flooded with furious tweets when her headline writer slipped up and called the lead actresses “transvestites.” Anyone who actually read the piece would know she was one of the first and loudest champions of the film and its stars. But often, people don’t read the piece—they just grab their pitchforks. Horror stories like that scare me because I can imagine a near-future where critics nervously avoid writing about films with sensitive subjects. But those are the films that most need our megaphone.

But enough about the struggles of criticism. Let’s talk about the struggles of criticism, like that recent Atlantic essay about the lack of female film critics. I did a double take because I spent my 2015 sharing screenings and having drinks with countless terrific female film critics who publish in print and on the Web. As for the theory quoted in the Atlantic piece that nice ladies don’t become critics because “women don’t feel like they want authority to tell people what to do,” lemme grab my Borscht Belt bowtie and tell you guys some mother-in-law jokes.

Still, I do think female film critics can clue into plot beats that male critics miss—especially movies about female friendship, which can be impenetrable even to actual women. This year, I thought Miss You Already and Jem and the Holograms got a raw deal from the largely male Tomatometer, which brushed them aside as women’s stuff. Neither was a masterpiece, but Jem in particular was lashed with such undeserved savagery you’d think the band murdered a puppy. And while it’s too late to change the tides of Oscar season, Toni Collette’s performance in cancer dramedy Miss You Already deserves to be a front-runner. Yet it went ignored while Sly Stallone’s piffling King Lear act in the mediocre Creed is hailed like the second coming. I’m not surprised: Testosterone takes over some male critics’ minds. I just amuse myself by imagining a version of Creed that’s exactly the same except that Adonis is dedicated to ballet instead of boxing. Its fans would immediately dismiss it as stupid—if they saw it at all.

Still, I suspect I’m overestimating the importance of female critics on female-driven films. After all, David and Mark loved ultra-femme movies like Clouds of Sils Maria, The Duke of Burgundy, and Carol more than I did. In fact, David’s top 25 testifies to the great range of “chick flicks” in 2015: those three, plus Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter; Mistress America; Phoenix; Mustang; Girlhood; and even his beloved World of Tomorrow, a beautiful oddity of a sci-fi cartoon. Maybe this week, the guys can teach me how to be a better girl. Or we can just scrap gender altogether and call each other by the new gender-neutral pronoun ze.

I’m so glad to be joining ze for this year’s Movie Club! I’ll close out by taking Dana up on her challenge to file our entries in innovative forms: Here are my feelings about Adam Sandler’s string of 2015 movies, in the form of a cat GIF:


Over to you, David!



*Correction, Jan. 4, 2016: Due to an editing error, this entry originally misidentified Rian Johnson’s upcoming Star Wars film. It is Episode VIII, not Episode VII. (Return.)

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