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The Full Maltin

Last week, Leonard Maltin walked out of Zoolander 2. He earns a living as a professional critic, but bailed on the film to salvage that most precious and irretrievable of commodities: time. I suspect the 439-word journal entry he turned in surprised IndieWire's editors, who’d likely expected a more traditional review. They paid Maltin anyway and ran the piece, which garnered more clicks and controversy than a garden-variety pan.

My friend and fellow critic David Fowlie alerted me to the walk-out via Facebook, and rightfully concluded that Maltin’s leaving wasn’t the problem; writing about it was. Watch a movie or don't, but don't claim that writing about not watching it counts as criticism. After all, our calling isn’t perilous. Bomb Diffusers risk their lives every day in Iraq. At most, critics risk missing the late train after "surviving" a Nicholas Sparks movie. We should be made of sterner stuff.*

I re-committed myself to A) always seeing movies through, beginning to end, and B) never admitting failure were I to fall short. The funny thing about the universe is that it’s always eager to test resolutions, especially the big ones. Roughly twenty-eight hours later, I broke my own rules, and now humbly submit this non-review of Paul Feig’s Spy.

My wife and I celebrated Valentine’s Day a day early by Redboxing last summer's surprise blockbuster. I’d heard near-unanimous praise when it came out, and figured maybe the third time would be the charm for me, Feig, and Feig’s million-dollar muse, Melissa McCarthy. I couldn’t stand Bridesmaids or The Heat (for reasons I’ll get to in a moment), but people I knew assured me that Spy was a solid, hilarious parody of the action genre.

I lasted an hour and ten minutes before going to sleep.

For the record, I didn’t “fall” asleep. I started the movie sitting upright on the couch. At the half-hour mark, I'd slumped into a resting position. Twenty minutes later, I struggled to keep my eyes open. Around minute seventy-five, I began weighing my options: 

  1. Pause the movie, put on some coffee, and muscle through
  2. Pass out, extend the rental by a day, and finish the following evening by myself
  3. Pass out, return the movie the next day, and rent it another time
  4. Accept that me and Spy just weren't mean to be, and give it the full Maltin treatment

Before I could decide anything, I snapped awake, just in time to catch the movie’s climax. Sure enough, all the character dynamics I’d pegged at minute fifteen remained depressingly static. The character “everyone” thought was dead turned out to be alive. I’d missed nothing but more gunshots, more stunts, and more over-wrought insults that could have come from any number of similar films.

It would be wrong of me to review Spy without watching the whole thing, but I can't guarantee that will happen. The film is targeted at fans of Bridesmaids who, by and large, don't watch enough movies to understand that Feig doesn't subvert female-comedy stereotypes; he gussies them up in poop and puke, then places a glittery "empowerment" bow on top to distract from the stench. It's a winning formula for movie studios, who've turned "Girls Night Out" into a sub-genre, no matter that the material often centers on weak, needy protagonists whose personal growth, despite marketing to the contrary, is still ultimately defined by either the men in their lives, or by their perceived need to adopt the worst masculine traits in order to succeed.

If you'd told me a decade ago that Melissa McCarthy would be the poster child for this disturbing trend, I wouldn't have believed you. I discovered her on The Gilmore Girls as Sookie St. James, a smart, successful chef who shattered the brittle "Fat Best Friend" comedy mold. No pratfalls. No getting caught with junk food smeared all over her face. No montages of whining or working out while waiting for the perfect guy to give her the time of day. Sookie embodied what I'd hoped would be a bright future for female characters in popular entertainment.

Hollywood (with McCarthy's consent, sadly) has morphed a gifted actress into an obnoxious-oddball factory. If your film needs a social outcast who says inappropriate things while looking unkempt and generally gross, ten bucks says McCarthy's first on your "Favorites" (followed by Rebel Wilson). Between her and her female co-stars throwing up all over themselves in Bridesmaids and her “bad cop” character from The Heat repeatedly tumbling over, dignity has all but vanished from McCarthy's mainstream career.

Worse yet, her antics only reinforce the idea that women who don't fit the slim, polished, Cover Girl aesthetic are also spiritually and socially "out of shape". It diminishes the big-picture awesomeness of a plus-sized actress becoming a marquee star, by virtue of the fact that people are still (consciously or unconsciously) showing up to celebrate the reinforcement of one of society's most depressing prejudices. Sure, labeling McCarthy a "female Chris Farley" is easy and mean, but recent evidence suggests it's not out of bounds.**

This trend destroys the rich, comedic potential of Spy. Instead of writing McCarthy's character as a consistently capable but desk-bound CIA agent who gets dropped into the field, Feig has her vacillating between being the smartest person in the room and a rural Wisconsinite fresh off the turnip truck. Her character's version of proving how smart she is involves spewing acerbic profanity at the film's villains instead of, you know, dealing with them as evil super-geniuses who could blow up the world at any moment. The result is that we in the audience aren't treated to a comedic character, rather a jukebox of disparate (and desperate) comic traits from Melissa McCarthy's filmography

To be fair, maybe my lost thirty minutes in the middle-end of Spy contain the nuggets of hope I'd been looking for. I'll probably find out someday, likely way before Leonard Maltin revisits Zoolander 2. In the meantime, we'll both continue to watch movies with hope in our hearts and an ever-growing-list of Better Things To Do in our brains. This minor hiccup aside, I'm still committed to finishing the movies I start. But I've given myself the freedom to amend that vow with the following:


Endnote: The plus side of taking a power-nap late in the evening is that I woke up refreshed and oddly energized. My wife and I hung out on the couch, laughing and talking for an hour, eventually tuning in to the new episode of Saturday Night Live. Melissa McCarthy hosted. And played a string of awkward, obnoxious characters--one of whom threw up on herself.

*To borrow a phrase from Optimus Prime.

**In case you're wondering, I didn't find Farley's schtick funny either, especially when he ended SNL sketches in alarming fits of wheezing.

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