It was, needless to say, not a great weekend for Melissa McCarthy. Her woman-on-the-run comedy “Tammy” took in just $21 million over the three-day weekend — a good chunk less than the prior three films in which she’s had key roles — and a tepid $33 million over the five-day holiday period. Meanwhile, her film landed thuddingly with critics (24% on Rotten Tomatoes) and audiences (C+ CinemaScore).
But leaving aside the film’s specific issues (Susan Sarandon road-trip redux, anyone?), McCarthy actually shouldn't feel too bad. As a relatively newly minted comedy star, she’s part of a group of actors who have trouble sustaining momentum, especially when they seem to be playing the same character again and again.
In “Tammy” (a family affair that McCarthy also produced and co-wrote, and that was directed by husband Ben Falcone) the actress once more plays the sass-spouting, freewheeling comic id she's been in movies that became hits over the past three years (“Bridesmaids,” "Identity Thief” and “The Heat”). And that number of movies in so short a span can give us fatigue. At some point in their careers, a similar trap caught many a modern comedy star: Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Seth Rogen and Jim Carrey, all of whom wore out their welcome by doing their shtick a little too often in a little too short a time period. In some instances they got their mojo back. In others they’re still looking.
Given the carbon-copy model of Hollywood, in which success is mainly used to repeat the old instead of leverage the new, it’s hardly a surprise that this happens. Call it the Owen Wilson paradox: The more we like seeing actors in a certain type of role, the more they book these types of gigs. And the more they book these types of gigs the less we like seeing them in these types of roles. After a while, they get Drillbit Taylored. Or Tammyed.
McCarthy (who, yes, chose a passion project with “Tammy” but got it made in large part because it promised many of the same types of laughs we’ve had from her before) has the added disadvantage, such as it is, of being in our living rooms during much of this span thanks to her CBS sitcom "Mike and Molly" (ironically, a vehicle in which her character can sometimes seem to be the most subtle of all these roles). The bar for her to do something original has gotten higher. Yet as she plumbs the same nooks of her comic persona, the comedy gets lower, and more familiar.
While it’s not easy to find a way out of the Owen Wilson paradox--just ask its namesake--many of these stars, if they indeed have something more to show us, have done just that, either by slowly or abruptly trying something different. Rogen has pushed in genre directions (“This Is the End”) or muted the schlubbiest parts of his stoner comedy (“Neighbors”). Stiller has gone to the directing well. Sandler worked with Paul Thomas Anderson. Black and Carrey pushed in their own dramatic directions with movies like “Bernie” and “The Truman Show.” (The jury’s still out on Ferrell.)
It doesn’t mean, of course, they won’t fall back into a familiar pattern. But these roles allow them to show us another aspect of their talent, or at the very least give us a break from something we’ve grown tired of seeing.
McCarthy doesn’t seem to be trying an entirely clean departure—the movie she recently shot, “Spy,” has a decidedly “Heat"-ish flavor, an action-comedy with the same director as that 2013 effort. But she is trying something more dramatic in “St. Vincent,” the Bill Murray manchild dramedy set for release this fall, and several of her development projects hint at something new as well.
It’s never been easy in Hollywood for an actor to get off the comedy hamster wheel. That’s especially true in contemporary Hollywood, where getting any film made, let alone a differently oriented one, is a challenge. The good ones, though, find a way, lest it, and they, go nowhere.
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