Melissa McCarthy, supposedly, has been acquainted with Michelle Darnell for 15 years. She first played the character in sketches at The Groundlings, an iconic Los Angeles improv troupe. She then worked on a screenplay for the character’s feature debut for, presumably, a few more years. Yet watching this debacle, you get the impression the two have never met.
Whatever her personal connection to and empathy for this character, McCarthy plays her from the outside, never understanding or, seemingly, wanting to understand what makes this woman tick.
Thus the comic actress wanders through a sloppily written movie commenting on everything and everybody that comes within her view but you hear only the voice of McCarthy, not Michelle Darnell.
Groucho Marx got away with this sort of thing in days of old but he had brothers to perform the physical comedy and other antics while he made his wry comments. But this McCarthy movie is pretty much a one-woman show as she’s installed her husband-collaborator, Ben Falcone, as director (for the second time) while the script is credited to her along with Falcone and fellow Groundling Steve Mallory.
Which might have worked if she really played Michelle Darnell.
As McCarthy writes and plays her, though, the character fades in and out while the target of all the frantic comedy keeps shifting.
First she’s a poor little rich girl, having risen from an orphanage with issues of trust to the top of the corporate world as the 47th wealthiest woman in America (or maybe it’s the world, doesn’t matter). Her cash flow seems to stem from a career as a self-help guru, certainly a ripe topic for satire, but this fades away almost before the subject is raised.
Next she’s the worst boss in the world, a devil that doesn’t wear Prada but rather costumes designed more for a reboot of Cruella De Vil.
Before you can settle into this caricature, Michelle suddenly is Martha Stewart redux, an ex-felon (insider trading like Martha), released from a brief country-club incarceration only to transform into a poor little poor girl — inexplicably broke in five months, how is that possible?— but on the comeback trail.
Probably any of these definitions of Michelle might have worked for McCarthy’s comedy brand, but McCarthy, in search of laughs rather than insights or character, keeps mixing them up, making Michelle wildly inconsistent before she winds up in her least likely incarnation, a cringe-worthy sentimental slob. That fits McCarthy worse than Michelle’s thoroughly misguided wardrobe.
The movie coasts for a while on McCarthy’s outsized personality but falls apart as storylines drift in search of things for her to do.
Out of prison but also out of a job, Michelle gets cozy with her former assistant, played winsomely by Kristen Bell, and her daughter, played very well by Ella Anderson, in the cramped quarters of Bell’s Chicago apartment.
Then she comes up with an entrepreneurial idea involving the youngster’s Dandelions troupe (read Girl Scouts) and the sale of her mom’s brownies to raise money for profit.
Michelle gets engaged in business wars à la Donald Trump only for the storyline to divert, bizarrely, into a midnight heist in a high-rise that makes no sense in a comedy about corporate chicanery and arrogant bosses.
A sword fight between McCarthy and a business rival played by Peter Dinklage, where nothing about their respective martial art abilities has been set up properly, demonstrates what happens when a movie gets so desperate it will resort to anything. Anything.
In turtlenecks, overstated jewelry, red wigs. florid outfits and makeup that looks like it was applied with a large paint brush, McCarthy has never looked worse.
When actors do this to themselves, it’s a sure sign of misgivings about a role. They’re hiding out, in other words.
Melissa McCarthy meet Michelle Darnell . You really should get to know each other better.
Opens: April 8, 2016 (Universal Pictures)
Production companies: On the Day, Gary Sanchez
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Bell, Peter Dinklage, Ella Anderson, Tyler Labine, Kathy Bates, Cecily Strong
Director: Ben Falcone
Screenwriters: Melissa McCarthy, Ben Falcone, Steve Mallory
Producers: Melissa McCarthy, Ben Falcone, Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, Chris Henchy
Executive producers: Rob Cowan, Kevin Messick
Director of photography: Julio Macat
Production designer: Rusty Smith
Music: Christopher Lennertz
Costume designer: Wendy Chuck
Editor: Craig Alpert
R rating, 99 minutes