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The Art of Degradation
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
It's probably not a surprise that the biggest box office opening of the year so far belonged to a movie that most critics hated — the Jason Bateman/Melissa McCarthy road movie Identity Thief, which debuted on February 8th and brought in over $34 million for the weekend. Despite being annihilated by critics, the comedy massively outperformed expectations and appears destined to be one of 2013's early surprise hits, especially with no discernible comic competition on the winter/spring release schedule. The surprising star power and likability of actress Melissa McCarthy contributed greatly to the film's start, for Universal Studios reported that a strong 58% of the weekend's audience was female. Clearly, the Oscar-nominated, breakout star of Bridesmaids ($169 million lifetime gross) has suddenly become the rarest of Hollywood finds — the bankable female star who can fill the seats for the crucial opening weekend.
There's never been an absolute correlation between critical acclaim and box office success, of course; the "Twilight" and "Transformer" movies were huge blockbusters despite getting bludgeoned by critics, and recent hits like The Hobbit, Hotel Transylvania, and A Haunted House also performed well despite critical thrashings. What's interesting about the bad notices for Identity Thief is that most critics are loathe to say anything bad about Melissa McCarthy — the talented, physical comedienne has engendered such good will with her recent successes (including an Emmy-winning turn on the sitcom Mike and Molly) that most critics are willing to give her a free pass for Identity Thief. McCarthy has never apologized for being overweight and she doesn't shy away from the slapstick and pratfalls most often associated with male comics; she earned a lot of respect. For most critics, it's hard not to like someone like that.
Hard, but not impossible. One glaring exception to the Melissa McCarthy love-fest is noted hatchet man Rex Reed, the venerable and prickly reviewer who currently writes for The New York Observer. In a vicious put-down of Identity Thief, Reed got personal, calling McCarthy "tractor-sized" and a "hippo" and saying that she is "a gimmick comedian who has devoted her short career to being obese and obnoxious with equal success." Reed hated the movie, obviously, and had unkind words for the film's other star, Jason Bateman, but it was the malevolent glee he displayed in ridiculing McCarthy's size that got the critic in hot water, for almost immediately after publication Reed started receiving personal blasts and death threats from the thousands of people offended by his name-calling. Many of McCarthy's Hollywood brethren joined in he fray, with Eric Stonestreet of Modern Family openly hoping for Reed's death and Bridesmaids director Paul Feig cheerfully inviting Reed to "go **** himself." Calls for Reed's dismissal have been constant since the review appeared and Reed himself has made some mildly conciliatory statements since the brouhaha began, though, to his credit, he hasn't backed off from his original statement.
So, obviously, Rex Reed crossed some sort of line with his review of "Identity Thief." He made personal, disparaging remarks about an overweight actress and he did it in a cruel way. Even in Hollywood, where performers expect a certain amount of derision and hostility from reviewers, this was uncalled for. (And from the support Melissa McCarthy has received from the industry, I guess I never realized how much Hollywood really loves overweight actresses. I had always thought that they hated them, that they only liked waifs like Keira Knightley and Anne Hathaway. Guess I was just plain wrong about that.)
While it's impossible to support the loathsome language that Reed used in his review, I have to grudgingly admit that, cruelty aside, I don't think his assessment of Melissa McCarthy is too far off. I like Melissa McCarthy, I liked her in Gilmore Girls and I think she can be very funny, but it's a little disturbing to me how quickly she can turn herself into a walking grotesque for a humorous bit. She always seems ready, willing, and able to do another reprise of the (admittedly funny) gross-out scene from "Bridesmaids." When she hosted Saturday Night Live in October, 2011, I was genuinely looking forward to the show, but in skit after skit McCarthy kept playing cartoon grotesques, as if that's all an overweight actor is good for. There seemed to be almost a masochistic or sadistic element to the show that night, it made me uncomfortable in the way that Chris Farley's grossness ( and obvious self-loathing) used to. McCarthy has been championed as a fearless comedian, one who's willing to take chances, yet you almost wish she wasn't so fearless, especially in the SNL skit where she was forced to enthusiastically guzzle ranch dressing. After watching that, I had no idea what to think. Was it a great comedian "going for it" or was it just another unfunny, degrading bit reserved for the "fat" girl? I"m still not sure, but knowing that McCarthy is always up for this sort of thing will certainly keep me away from Identity Thief, which, judging by the trailers and reviews, looks like just another gross-out spectacular.
Rex Reed probably deserves the raking over the coals he's getting at the moment, and it wouldn't surprise me too much if he loses his job in the next few days. Some words you just can't take back; when they're out there, they're out there. But I have to wonder: what exactly is the difference between what Reed did in his column and what the screenwriters and directors do to Melissa McCarthy in every movie? Both seem intent on ridiculing her, on degrading her, though it should be noted that the screenwriters and directors seem to have her complicit approval. Which somehow makes it worse.