Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Melissa McCarthy and The Comedy of Awful

A suspected drug dealer and pimp is fleeing from a cop in pursuit. You've got your classic cop movie stuff: the street interview, the suddenly realized self-incrimination, the perp's takeoff, the cop's chase, fence jumping, trash can tipping, all of that.

The Heat, out this past weekend, takes the cop chase to a comical extremes as Detective Mullins (Melissa McCarthy) eschews most of the running and instead chases the running suspect, Rojas (Spoken Reasons), with her car.

After catching up to the suspect quickly – because he's running on foot and she's, you know, driving a car – Mullins catches Rojas in a death grip as he attempts to climb a fence, both of them falling hard. As they slowly, comically limp along in the final part of the chase going past a fruit truck, Mullins knocks Rojas to the ground with a watermelon.

And Rojas, who pre-chase calls Mullins racist against a black man while holding a joint, chastises Mullins again as racist for throwing the watermelon at him.

The theater was howling with laughter. I turned to my wife and said, “I'm out.”

I didn't leave the theater, but I'd checked out mentally after just 10 minutes of The Heat.

I wasn't all that rewarded by the rest of the film, either. The script failed to do justice to the actually-awesome comic pairing of Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy. The script was full of cheap, mean laughs, unlikable characters and hackneyed tropes that were supposed to feel new because it's women in the main roles.

Or that Lethal Weapon's Riggs and Murtaugh followed procedure better then Mullins and Ashburn, whose case in The Heat would have been thrown out on so many technicalities and brutality claims.

But it was that one chase scene that turned me off. It just didn't work for me. To paraphrase black comedy nerd Dave Chappelle, my blackness wouldn't allow it.

Not in this country where black men are chased and beaten down by police, almost for just existing. Not in a country where black men are subject to stop-and-frisk policies. Not in a country where so many black men are locked up on nonviolent drug offenses and lose the right to vote.

Not in a country where real police are accused of brutality against black men historically, presently and regularly, creating a fundamental difference in the American black experience from that of whites. (My father was a cop, and I support but don't exactly trust police. It runs that deep.)

Not in a world where Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant, Patrice Dorismond, Kimani Grey and Sean Bell are real. Black men, unarmed, shot to death by police. Not after a week of watching the George Zimmerman trial over the killing of Trayvon Martin.

I couldn't laugh. I can't really tell you why my mind went there immediately. But it did. That's the nerve it struck.

I'm not saying the scene couldn't be funny. It just wasn't done in a funny way. The movie presents the action in a way that we're supposed to be on the side of Mullins, played by the co-star of the movie. The script tidies itself up in the scene by, after throwing the watermelon, Mullins finds bags of cocaine on Rojas. And Rojas is smoking a joint. I get that the script is showcasing how Mullins is overzealous.

The choice of chasing a man with a car, however, just didn't feel funny. All that over one joint? (The bags of coke were found later.) Going to the absolute extreme in the name of comedy doesn't always work, as a thoroughly disastrous scene later in the film with a choking victim illustrated. Not to say chasing someone down with a car can't be funny. Something that horrible needs to be earned as comedy.

Or using a “don't play the race card with me” premise. Ah, the race card, that fun saying that white people say when they want to dismiss any possible grievance by people of color. It's patronizing and frivolous at the same time. See, the black guy up to no good is calling out racism! That race stuff is full of shit just like he is. The logic leap is so easy, so simple.

So I'm supposed to be cheering for this? We just met this character, and so far she's been nothing but terrible. We have no reason to like her unless you automatically assume that she's good because she's the star of the movie, and she's better than the people whose hands she's breaking or whom she is chasing with her car. You may find it funny, and that's fine. I just found it lazy writing that uses mean stuff willy-nilly.

There's one rule of comedy, which is to be funny. But I think there's one rule of using horrible or mean things in comedy: don't make the victim the butt of the joke.

I'm not saying that such a situation – an over-the-top cop going after a common drug dealer, while doing objectively awful things – can't be funny.

In the remake of Shaft starring Samuel L. Jackson, there's a scene in which Shaft, to help a woman on the block whose son is being propositioned into the drug trade by the corner dealer, runs up on the gang and pistol-whips the dealer into submission to leave the boy alone. And somehow, it's funny.

Sure, you've got Jackson doing his scary-funny persona to sell the scene. But I think the change in perspective also matters.

The director, black filmmaker John Singleton, is pretty well known for looking through race-colored glasses for social issues in his movies, and the drug trade in black neighborhoods has been one of them. From this movie's point of view, it's the upstanding citizens preyed upon by drug dealers. It's the dealers who snatch up good kids, who tear up neighborhoods with violence and degrade black people to those outside the race. 

Having grown up in an inner-city neighborhood torn up by drug dealing, and watching little kids caught in crossfire on their way to school, there's an anger about making change that is tempered by fear of reprisal. And here comes Shaft, who won't face reprisal as a cop, but could handle it if it happened.

A detective storms a corner and pistol-whips a kid silly? Objectively horrible. Framed as it is in Shaft, there's more going on. The victim isn't the drug dealer, it's the mom and her son.

There's another level of complexity humor that appears near the end of the scene, when Shaft has his gun drawn and the kid on the ground, and a white officer drives by in a squad car. The officer and Shaft lock eyes, give a nod, and the officer keeps on rolling. Maybe they know each other? Maybe they had the “blue code of silence” moment. Maybe the white officer thinks Shaft is cracking down on hoppers for the hell of it, and totally is missing the next level that Shaft is operating on.

But it works for me. If it's blue code, then it's the humor of the blue code working in favor of black people just this once. Add to it that this happens later in the movie, when Shaft has been established as a righteous hothead whose voice is being stifled by the injustice of the race-class status quo.

If comedy is hard, then writing mean comedy is harder. Ultimately, the jokes have to reflect back on the perpetrator of the horrible actions and make them the butt of the joke.

For example, an episode of Family Guy had a drunk Stewie lift his glass and say, “To the black man. Thanks for taking it all in stride.” I bust a gut laughing because it was a joke on racists, not the victims of racism.

A lack of understanding about black humor and the use of unlikeable characters can have disastrous results. It takes serious pros to pull it off. Seinfeld got it right. Ricky Gervais made it work in The Office, Extras and Life's Too Short. Married … with Children had it. The Cable Guy had it. Absolutely Fabulous had it.

I hope Melissa McCarthy gets a screenwriter who can do that for her again, because The Heat and Identity Thief both lacked the tone, content and personality to build around her crass-is-magic persona.

That time she was funny...

McCarthy's antics in Bridesmaids, made by The Heat director Paul Feig, made her a household name. Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo's script created the right space for her character's awfulness to shine in relief to the other characters and by giving her a scene or two of genuine humanity as well. That's what she needs.

The Heat made a ton of money opening weekend, so it likely will be a box-office hit this summer. If McCarthy and Feig team up for a third movie, let's hope the script has more firepower.

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