The difference between a movie that works and a movie that doesn’t can be elusive, and that’s especially true in comedy, where a split-second shift in timing can make a joke fizzle or explode. But cast a glance over Melissa McCarthy’s filmography and it’s easy to spot the common element in the ones that go splat: They’re the ones directed by her husband Ben Falcone.
In dark times for comedies—the genre’s share of domestic box office has dropped by more than two-thirds in the past 20 years—McCarthy has been a shining ray of hope. Over the past decade, her movies, including Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy, and Ghostbusters, have taken in more than a billion dollars worldwide and, with the exception of the last, have done it without the costly reliance on pre-sold intellectual property that now props up most of Hollywood’s big-ticket productions. She is, to use a word that has less and less relevance in a climate where franchises are the only currency, a star, and she has put the power that comes with that title to use, producing half a dozen movies since 2014, including five directed by Falcone. The trouble is that those movies are, not to put too fine a point on it, lousy. That’s not to say unsuccessful, exactly: Tammy, Life of the Party, and The Boss all earned between $50 million and $85 million in domestic box office, enough to repay their modest budgets. But McCarthy is capable of knocking it out of the park, and these are singles and doubles at best—that is, when they’re not excruciating misfires.
In the past few months, two new McCarthy-Falcone joints have arrived on our screens: Superintelligence, which debuted on HBO Max on Thanksgiving, and Thunder Force, which is now on Netflix. The former was once scheduled as a Christmas theatrical release, a slot befitting McCarthy’s star status, but even before the pandemic shuttered theaters, it was downgraded to a streaming release, and while HBO Max doesn’t release numbers for individual movies, a recent report from Variety and the analytics firm TVision suggest that even on that platform, Superintelligence was a bomb, with less than a quarter the audience of Wonder Woman 1984. Netflix is even more of a black box than HBO Max, so it’s likely we’ll never have a clear sense of whether Thunder Force is a hit, a flop, or somewhere in between, but the movie itself is a dud, an action comedy directed by someone without an eye for either action or comedy.
You’d probably assume the problem with McCarthy and Falcone’s movies is that they’re vanity projects, but that’s not it, exactly. Even these mostly bad movies are best when McCarthy is on screen and her prodigious comic talents are allowed to run wild. That’s true of the subplot in Thunder Force where her genetically modified superhero starts up a non sequitur romance with Jason Bateman’s evil mutant, who happens to have crab claws for hands, or the exchange in The Boss when McCarthy’s high-powered businesswoman is advising her former assistant Kristen Bell which bra to wear for a date and the two wind up aggressively groping each other’s breasts. There’s a nutty, unpredictable energy to those scenes that comes from a comic actor having the freedom and the confidence to try things on set—the kind of environment the man she’s been married to for almost 16 years would seem ideally equipped to provide. But it’s also the kind of relationship she had with Paul Feig, who directed the four films that put McCarthy in the billion-dollar bracket, and did it without letting everything else in the movie fall apart.
Watching Thunder Force, it’s baffling to remember that this is Falcone’s fifth film as a director. There’s a convenience store fight so ineptly staged I had to watch it three times to decipher what was happening, and running gags that aren’t funny the first time and grow worse with every repetition. But if there’s one moment that illustrates how bad Thunder Force is, it’s the Bus Throw. The setup goes like this: After a lifetime of mediocrity, McCarthy’s character is accidentally injected with a serum that gives her superstrength, and she becomes fixated on the idea that she can use her newfound powers to throw a city bus at fleeing evildoers. Her former childhood pal Octavia Spencer, now a billionaire biotech genius who developed the superserum, points out numerous times that throwing said bus would be a very, very bad idea; she developed the serum to fight the superhuman sociopaths, called miscreants, who have taken over the world, not to let McCarthy’s headstrong bruiser casually toss around 10 tons of steel. Naturally, there’s a moment when a supervillain starts to make a fast getaway down a crowded city street, and McCarthy seizes her moment. Ignoring Spencer’s persistent noes, she orders everyone off the nearest bus, hoists it like an Olympic shot-putter, and sends it flying off into the distance. It’s a perfect setup, right in McCarthy’s comedic wheelhouse, and you can probably picture the payoff in your mind, the glee on her face as the bus goes soaring turning slowly to sheepish horror as it becomes clear it’s not going to find its mark, the wince as it takes out some beloved landmark as the supervillain speeds off with a smirk. But instead, all we get is a noncommittal medium shot of McCarthy looking vaguely apologetic, and a fuzzed-out shot of the bus stuck in a public fountain in the background of the next scene. It’s like getting to the top of a roller coaster and, instead of being met with a vertiginous drop, finding that the ride just flattens out and trundles lamely ahead.
There are similarly inexplicable lapses all through the McCarthy-Falcone oeuvre, like the scene in The Boss when her character, a business tycoon brought low by her own hubris, takes a tumble down a flight of stairs, and the movie omits the moment where she realizes she’s about to fall: It jumps from her standing upright to what’s presumably the body of a stunt woman halfway down the steps. This kind of amateur-hour omission would barely be forgivable in a first feature, let alone a fifth. Given that McCarthy has produced every movie they’ve made together and co-written three of them, it’s hard to know how much of the blame to lay solely at Falcone’s feet. (In her New York Times profile of McCarthy, Taffy Brodesser-Akner discussed their movies as if they were joint projects.) But at a minimum a director should ensure a scene has all the shots needed to make it work, and he’s still not doing it.
In other instances, it’s more likely the blame is shared by the shapeless scripts and lazy repetitions that mar the duo’s projects. As disparate as their settings and McCarthy’s characters (the middle-aged housewife of Life of the Party, the ineffectual leftist crusader of Superintelligence) may be, every one of them is prone to belting out pop songs at the drop of a hat, whether it’s Barenaked Ladies’ “One Week” or Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose.” Actors recirculate from one film to the next—both Bobby Cannavale and Octavia Spencer appear in Superintelligence and Thunder Force—in a way that feels less like the two are building a stock company and more like they’re just calling the first person they can think of. It would be one thing if this were all in the service of giving McCarthy a chance to shine, especially in an industry that doesn’t have much use for women in their 50s. But while the movies are giving her lots to do, from vicious street fights to rapping “All I Do Is Win” onstage with T-Pain, they aren’t stretching her in the way that a movie like Can You Ever Forgive Me? does. Even if you do it energetically, going through the motions is just that.
Perhaps, now that she’s found a berth at Netflix, McCarthy will follow the example set by Adam Sandler, making largely forgettable comedies with her friends for a core audience of dedicated fans and emerging every few years to make the equivalent of Uncut Gems. And hey, if you could get away with that, you probably would too. But it’s hard to think that it’s barely been two years since McCarthy was sitting at the Oscars as a Best Actress nominee, and this week she’s in a movie where she’s imitating Urkel from the sitcom Family Matters. She may feel more at ease making movies with Falcone, but it’s only when a filmmaker pushes her out of her comfort zone that she soars.