Will Melissa McCarthy Ever Find a Film Role as Complex as Her TV Characters?

Melissa McCarthy’s arms must hurt from being tugged back and forth all the time. She’s changing Hollywood! No, she’s “selling out” fat women! Her performances show total commitment and a lack of self-consciousness! No, she’s a “gimmick comedian”!

Plenty of people have plenty of things to say about McCarthy’s film career, which famously exploded in 2011 after her turn as the foulmouthed lady-oaf Megan in Bridesmaids — she who shits in sinks and says, of a man who catches her eye, “I’m going to climb that like a tree.” Since Bridesmaids, McCarthy’s film resume reads like variations on a theme.

She played a nutty Floridian woman who stole Jason Bateman’s identity in Identity Thief (a role which, interestingly, was written male and then rewritten specifically for McCarthy). In The Heat, Megan is essentially reincarnated as a Boston cop, the loose, loud foil to Sandra Bullock’s uptight FBI officer. Tammy harkens back to Identity Thief‘s Diana, another screwed-up and often-gross woman on the run.

But McCarthy’s television career is often ignored or, at the very least, mentioned only as a brief aside — despite the fact that her current show, Mike & Molly, is still in production, and her other big hit, Gilmore Girls, frequently resurfaces in the world of TV nostalgia. In both of these shows, McCarthy’s character is both feminine and self-assured, and has her career all set before she finds a sweet, adoring man who loves her as much as she does him. And, most importantly, both of these characters are hilarious, so it’s not like McCarthy had to sacrifice comedy for contentedness.

On Gilmore Girls, McCarthy played Sookie St. James, Lorelai Gilmore’s best friend and eventual business partner. But Sookie isn’t just Lorelai’s chubby sidekick: first of all, every character is essentially someone’s sidekick, as even Lorelai and Rory, the titular mother-daughter-best-friend pair, are halves of a whole. Sookie has her own desires, fears, and problems, and even occasionally subverts standard gender assumptions — something for which McCarthy’s movie characters are praised, as long as those subversions don’t stand in the way of happiness and love. Take this scene (at 3:13 below), in which Sookie’s boyfriend, Jackson, tries to persuade her to move in with him (keep in mind that she’s the one who initially asked him to dinner at the start of their relationship):

“I think we should get married,” Jackson says.

“What?” says Sookie.

Jackson: “I think we should get married.”

Sookie: “But uh…”

Jackson: “Soon.”

Sookie: “Are you pregnant?”

She’s in love but wary of moving forward — that familiar bundle of complex emotions —  and still capable of cracking a joke. And here’s a clip that gives us a glimpse at some of McCarthy’s future film characters, showing that her characteristic wacky obtuseness can still exist within a fully developed person: a child is paused at that wobbly-faced moment right before tears because Sookie yelled at her, and a disgusted McCarthy asks, “What’s the matter with her? Is she sick? Why is her mouth open? Lorelai! Look at her face.”

Mike & Molly showed promise, despite pretty average ratings. In 2011, McCarthy even won an Emmy for it. It’s a sweet story of a teacher and a cop in the suburbs of Chicago, both overweight, who meet and fall in love at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting. Molly is the smart, sane, charismatic counterpart to her stoner sister and partying, cougar-ish mother. Of course, as with most primetime sitcoms, you have to wade through some of the easy puns and low-hanging sexual euphemisms, but the heart of the show was warm and funny, a believable love story between two characters who would have been sidelined on another program.

An interesting thing happened, though, between Seasons 3 and 4 of Mike & Molly. Chuck Lorre, the show’s co-executive producer, and his team decided to re-shape Molly to make her more like McCarthy’s film characters — louder, more accident-prone, thrown into situations more ridiculous than a happily married teacher would believably encounter. They did this by having Molly quit her teaching job to become a writer, so she would be forced to insert herself into various quandaries under the auspices of “research.” According to Todd VanDerWerff at A.V. Club, this strategy hasn’t exactly failed, but it hasn’t quite worked either:

It’s not a terrible show, and every episode has moments when it either emotionally connects with the audience or offers up some solid laughs from its talented ensemble cast. But for the most part, the series seems so far away from its original core that it isn’t sure what it wants to be. It’s as if the show had been changed into one called Melissa, but nobody bothered to tell the rest of the actors, who keep showing up to collect paychecks.

Instead of allowing McCarthy to keep her Bridesmaids style as one very successful trick in her wide-ranging bag, it feels as though Hollywood is forcing her to become a caricature of herself. But repeating the same types of roles over and over can’t possibly stay interesting for the actor or the audience. A person should not be reduced just to her greatest, or loudest, strength. If no one in Hollywood was allowed out of their designated box, would we have seen Jonah Hill’s serious turn in Moneyball? Would Scarlett Johansson have been allowed out of her periodpiece corsets or skintight catsuits to explore the creepy future epics she’s doing now?

These examples don’t quite work, though, and for obvious reasons. Hill is male, and dudes of any size tend to get more leeway in Hollywood — they can bang super-hot chicks who would be multiple leagues out of reach in the real world. Johansson, to be fair, has her own problems with other peoples’ reactions to her body, but since she’s thin and sexy, she’s never actually had an issue fitting into a Hollywood mold.

Is this gimmick comedy the only way for McCarthy to carve out a place for herself on the A-List? She does have a certain power — films are greenlit just because she signs on, characters switch genders like Tiresias just so she can play them. But one has to wonder how long this power can run on just one type of fuel — Tammy was a disappointment, and it looks like Mike & Molly may slowly run itself into the ground as well. Perhaps McCarthy and her husband and writing partner, Ben Falcone, will watch some Gilmore Girls reruns and realize how wonderful McCarthy is at playing normal, and happy. In the meantime, though, there’s a glint of hope in McCarthy’s upcoming film, St. Vincent.

She plays a single mom who lives next door to Bill Murray’s hedonistic war veteran. Murray becomes an unlikely babysitter for McCarthy’s son, and the two bond. McCarthy isn’t exactly the star, but at least she gets to take a big-screen break from the potty humor and rough edges. What’s more is that her role in the film is much bigger than that of A-Lister Naomi Watts, who plays a pregnant Russian prostitute. When you think about it, it’s easy to see these roles switched — Watts as the rundown but determined single mom, with McCarthy given some kind of oddball character who dips in and out for some comic relief. The fact that it’s McCarthy who gets to showcase her dramatic chops, and in a movie that almost has to be huge because of crowd-favorite Bill Murray, shows some sort of progress. And if it fails, I guess there’s always The Heat 2.