As far as her recent movies are concerned, only one thing separates a good Melissa McCarthy comedy from a bad one, and that thing is Paul Feig. (Those awkwardly unfunny previews for Feig’s forthcoming Ghostbusters reboot, however, make me wonder how long that’ll be the case.) In the director’s Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy, McCarthy has been a blistering and wonderfully human riot, but the films themselves are so solidly constructed that you know they would’ve worked even with someone less naturally gifted in her roles. Yet the same can’t be said for the dismal Identity Thief, or the tonally nuts Tammy, or the debuting The Boss, which finds McCarthy’s ex-con entrepreneur Michelle Darnell seeking redemption through a makeshift Girl Scout troop, homemade brownies, and excessive bullying techniques. In each one, when she isn’t being humiliated, McCarthy is the best thing in it. In each one, that’s hardly saying much.
This is unfortunately the time to mention that The Boss, like Tammy, was directed by McCarthy’s husband Ben Falcone, and written by the pair of them (with Steve Mallory co-scripting). I say “unfortunately” because Falcone seems like a very nice man, and has exuded a friendly presence on TV and in films such as Enough Said, ... and every time I see him now, I think to myself, “Tom Arnold.” It’s not just that Falcone finds ways to insert himself, like a more obvious Alfred Hitchcock, into literally every movie his wife stars in. It’s that Falcone is starting to feel more and more like an unwelcome hanger-on – that omnipresent figure we have to endure if we want to spend more time with his significantly better half.
McCarthy goes off on a few hilariously profane rants in The Boss while also developing a sweet and spicy rapport with Kristen Bell as Darnell’s former assistant and new business partner; their chemistry is delightful, and flashes of wit are also provided by Kathy Bates, Tyler Labine, Kristen Schaal, Cecily Strong, and an amusingly off-putting Peter Dinklage. But man is this thing a mess, and between his duties as director and co-screenwriter, it’s Falcone who’s mostly to blame. The poorly staged, spine-snapping, physics-defying slapstick doesn’t at all blend with the sadly anticipated sentiment, and a bunch of plot elements – especially the embarrassing contrivance of Darnell mistaking a benign encounter for an unforgivable betrayal – wouldn’t be out of place on a sub-Mike & Molly sitcom. And saving the worst for last, just when you’ve accepted that the enjoyable early snark is gone forever, Falcone and his writing partners give us a preposterous, action-heavy finale on the roof of a Chicago skyscraper – evidence that this deeply confused movie, in its final minutes, still doesn’t know what the hell it wants to be. We McCarthy fans have suffered through worse than The Boss, no question. Yet we also deserve much better, and I’m hoping that the screen collaborations between McCarthy and Falcone either vastly improve or quickly end before a trial separation is in order – not between the two of them, but between them and the rest of us.
Is being the wife of Jake Gyllenhaal the most dangerous job on Earth? Nine months ago, the actor’s Southpaw pugilist watched as Rachel McAdams was gunned down and bled out right in front of him, and in the new Demolition, Gyllenhaal’s investment banker Davis Mitchell witnesses the horrific car-crash demise of his spouse (Heather Lind) not five minutes into the film. Sure, he’s handsome and talented and all, but I’d still advise those seeking a long and healthy screen life to back slowly away if they see Gyllenhaal approaching with a ring ... or with a script as chaotic and clumsy as the ones for Southpaw and Demolition.
Thankfully, director Jean-Marc Vallée’s character drama is a far more engaging mess than last summer’s boxing picture, even though it’s hard to believe a single minute of it. As Mitchell works through his troubling lack of grief, screenwriter Bryan Sipe asks us to buy into one aggressively eccentric conceit after another: that the widower would find solace through heavily expository complaints to a vending-machine company; that the company’s customer-service rep (Naomi Watts) would forge with him an unlikely friendship; that Mitchell would achieve cathartic release by destroying his suburban house with a sledgehammer and bulldozer (and without the neighbors calling the cops). If there’s such a thing as “macho quirk,” Demolition is unhappily rife with it, and Sipe’s characters don’t feel like people so much as walking, talking behaviors who communicate entirely in metaphor. Still, it’s at least lively. Vallée pulls off tricky, unexpectedly resonant effects with composition, focus, and sound, and as the director demonstrated in Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, he’s capable of eliciting marvelous performances. None here may be better than Judah Lewis’ fierce, focused work as Watts’ sexually confused 15-year-old son, but Watts’ expressiveness almost makes her senseless role make sense, and there are beautiful turns by Chris Cooper and the too-rarely-seen Polly Draper. As for Gyllenhaal, his quiet, ironic melancholy is such a lovely relief after all that capitalized Acting in Southpaw and Nightcrawler that when he inevitably blows his emotional lid, the moments feel earned. As its title suggests, Demolition is something of a wreck, yet it’s also a solid reminder of just how good Jake Gyllenhaal can be. Still wouldn’t marry him, though.
I was really looking forward to reviewing the action thriller Hardcore Henry, because its remarkable setup – with the audience collectively cast as the star of a big-screen, first-person-perspective video game – looked like an extraordinary feature-length stunt, and quite a bit of fun, to boot. Unfortunately, I’m only able to write two-thirds of a review, because two-thirds of the movie was all I could sit through before my crippling nausea caused me to exit the auditorium, never to return. Though excessively violent, writer/director Ilya Naishuller’s experiment is really no bloodier than plenty of other shoot-’em-ups, and while the incessant shaky-cam of, say, Cloverfield was annoying, it didn’t make me physically ill (and was certainly no more annoying than the film’s performances). For me, though, Hardcore Henry is in an unwatchable class by itself. Following the initial scenes of our cinematic avatar being Robocop-ed into existence – scenes that establish the perspective but, blessedly, keep us confined to a hospital bed – the film is a mad onslaught of running, leaping, tumbling, somersaulting, skydiving, and tangling with what appears to be a telekinetic Julian Assange. Yet as cool as all that might sound, there’s a reason that roller-coaster rides only last three minutes, and that, unless you’re a masochist, you don’t line up to ride one 30 times in a row.
After about five minutes of the camera whipping us to and fro and occasionally upside down, my motion sickness was causing me to stare at the floor for longer periods than I was watching the screen. But because that screen is so big (which is one of several reasons why you don’t feel similarly sick playing Call of Duty), the herky-jerky movements were traumatizing even in my peripheral vision, and closing my eyes barely helped, as I was still forced to listen to that irritating over-actor Sharlto Copley – perversely cast, like Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow, as a guy who keeps regenerating every time he’s killed. The sustained stunt itself is legitimately “How’d they do that?!” amazing, and Naishuller adds some agreeably breezy humor, such as scoring “our” misbegotten attempt to ride a horse to the theme from Bonanza. And that’s all I can say. I bolted, and felt absolutely no shame in bolting. Tougher and more-video-game-tested sensibilities than mine may well have a blast. But after a punishing hour, I left Hardcore Henry feeling nothing but awful (my nausea continued well into the next day), and hearing nothing but Jeff Goldblum’s sentiment in Jurassic Park, thinking that its filmmakers were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.