The Five Absolutely Essential Melissa McCarthy Movies

Broad comedies. Nervy indies. And, yes, ‘Ghostbusters.’ These are the films you need to see to understand the Oscar-nominated actress’ endearing appeal
The Five Absolutely Essential Melissa McCarthy Movies

Welcome to “Five Absolutely Essentials,” an overview of the greatest comedians’ most memorable moments. Mind you, these aren’t necessarily their “best” movies — rather, these are the five films that best represent different aspects of their talent, their ambition, their persona and the artistic risks they’ve taken along the way. If you’re looking for a sense of a comic in all their complexity, here’s where to start. 

Melissa McCarthy gets tired of hearing that she always plays outlandish individuals. “People say to me, ‘These characters are crazy,’ and I’m like, ‘Are they?’” she said in 2016. “Because I’ve seen three people in Rite Aid drugstore act like that. I think when a female character acts more defiant, it’s seen as a little more crazy. There are women in the world like this, we’re just not used to seeing them portrayed.”

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Whether as a member of the Groundlings or later as one of Hollywood’s most successful comic stars, McCarthy has helped expand the idea of what funny female characters can do — a compliment that would seem patronizing if it wasn’t so depressingly true. After Bridesmaids, where her unapologetic force of nature Megan Price sent that broad comedy to greater heights with her DGAF attitude, she started exploring the possibilities of what it’s like for larger-than-life women who don’t fit in the world. Male comics have a whole history of playing such lovable outsiders, but McCarthy broke ground by insisting that women’s experiences were no different. Not surprisingly, this pissed off a lot of male viewers, who were used to their female comics being not so brash and assertive, but she didn’t care. She’s as defiant as her on-screen alter egos, but far sweeter and funnier. 

And she’s hardly slowing down. In a few weeks, she’ll be part of the highly anticipated live-action remake of The Little Mermaid, and then we’ll see her in Jerry Seinfeld’s star-studded Pop-Tarts movie. In the meantime, how do you boil down her film career to only five roles? I’ve selected two indisputable comedy classics, a hotly debated 2016 reboot, an experimental indie and an Oscar-nominated drama. Not all the characters she plays in these movies are crazy — but they’re all very, very Melissa McCarthy.

The Nines (2007)

In the early 2000s, McCarthy was enjoying success on the TV shows Gilmore Girls and Samantha Who?, but if you’re looking for one of her first pre-movie-star triumphs, check out this daring indie written and directed by John August, who had known the actress from working with her on Go (which he wrote) and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (which he co-wrote). “When it came time to start writing (The Nines), I knew I wanted her in it,” August later said. “So I talked to her about it before I put pen to paper, because I wouldn’t do it if she wouldn’t do it.”

It’s best not to ruin the movie’s twists since so many people still haven’t seen it, but suffice it to say The Nines is actually made up of three separate stories, each of them starring Ryan Reynolds, Hope Davis and McCarthy. (Yeah, this was also before Reynolds was as big as he is now.) In this triptych of tales, McCarthy plays a publicist, a wife and, most interestingly, herself as a struggling actress who thinks she’s just landed her breakthrough role. The Nines allowed McCarthy to show off her range — she goes from comedy to pathos in the film — and, in light of the persona she’s forged over the last decade, it’s especially fascinating to watch her at this early stage of her career, right before film stardom (and an Emmy win for her forthcoming sitcom Mike & Molly) beckoned. If you’re someone who thinks that she can only play over-the-top, in-your-face characters, The Nines will disabuse you of such assumptions right quick. 

Bridesmaids (2011)

McCarthy’s breakthrough earned the Mike & Molly star her first Oscar nomination as the crass, common-sense Megan, the wild card of this group of bridesmaids. Ironically, this wasn’t how writers Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig had envisioned the character, picturing her as more meek. But when McCarthy auditioned for the part, she brought a bold assertiveness to Megan, which completely changed the script’s dynamics. “I think I just read it wrong,” McCarthy later admitted. “For some reason, when I read it, that’s what I saw.” It’s now impossible to see Megan any other way — or to imagine anyone else playing her. 

McCarthy’s cannonballing slapstick energy would soon propel her to disappointing star vehicles like Identity Thief, but here she hit upon the perfect combo of brash and grounded, outrageous and sincere. Most of her costars are operating on a realistic wavelength, but McCarthy keeps taking Bridesmaids into weirder, funnier territory. But don’t forget that it’s Megan who gives Wiig’s Annie the tough-love pep talk at the end, proving to be way wiser than her oddball demeanor might suggest. It takes an actress with real heart to pull that off. 

Spy (2015)

McCarthy and director Paul Feig have worked together several times, but when Feig began working on his script for a spy comedy about a CIA desk-jockey who gets her first assignment in the field, he initially didn’t think of McCarthy. “I thought, ‘I know a lot of funny women.’ So I wrote my own spy movie with a lady lead, and it was just kind of as easy as that,” he said later. “And then I thought about it and I had a million ideas, wrote it up, and honestly, I didn’t write for Melissa, because I didn’t think she was available.” But McCarthy found time in her schedule to star as Susan, who will discover a world of excitement and danger when she goes undercover to infiltrate the world of the sinister Rayna (Rose Byrne). 

Everybody’s terrific in SpyJason Statham is hall-of-fame great as an incredibly stupid agent — but whereas McCarthy would often go broad to get laughs in her movies, here she’s actually much more of an everywoman, which helps sell this very delightful fish-out-of-water action-comedy. Her Susan has always dreamt of being involved in actual spycraft, but it turns out the real thing is a lot scarier (and funnier) than what she imagined. Not since Bruce Willis in the first Die Hard has someone so compellingly played a normal person thrust into such a harrowing situation. And like John McClane, she swears like a sailor — hilariously so.

“I’m not that way in real life, for the record,” McCarthy said. “Paul loves to make me swear. … Paul always just stands by the side (on set) and goes ‘Swear more!’ when I’m like ‘There’s no swear word on Earth that I haven’t said.’ And I don’t know why that’s so satisfying, but I get all of that out at work, which is really cathartic.”

Ghostbusters (2016)

Probably the most divisive film on this list remains, years after its release, a hard movie to judge. In the buildup to its unveiling, the so-called Lady Ghostbusters was voraciously attacked online for daring to tell a new story in this cinematic universe, except this time the main characters were… women. McCarthy faced similar sexist obstacles with Bridesmaids, which broke a glass ceiling in terms of what a female-led broad comedy could do at the box office, but Ghostbusters wasn’t the confident laugh riot that her earlier film had been, leading to so-so reviews and disappointing grosses. As a result, the movie has been labeled a failure — especially when Sony decided not to make a sequel, instead pivoting to 2021’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife, which effectively erased McCarthy’s film from existence.

I’d argue this Ghostbusters is actually pretty good, reuniting McCarthy with Feig, as well as Bridesmaids’ Kristen Wiig, who co-starred alongside Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones. Rather than trying to replicate the Bill Murray/Dan Aykroyd/Harold Ramis/Ernie Hudson dynamic of the original films, the reboot fashioned a story about the strained relationship between McCarthy and Wiig’s adorable nerd characters, giving the story a bigger heart without skimping on punchlines. Plus, after years of her being front and center in her films, it was gratifying to watch her blend effortlessly into an ensemble, letting her equally funny cohorts get as many laughs as she did. 

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

In films like Tammy, McCarthy happily played characters who could be repellant. Those movies weren’t very good, but they demonstrated a fearlessness on her part: She wasn’t afraid to be “unlikable,” a word that actresses have been trained to fear while working in a sexist film business that prefers female protagonists to be bright, bubbly and/or sympathetic. So it wasn’t a surprise that McCarthy would gravitate toward playing real-life author Lee Israel, an alcoholic and a misanthrope who, after her career plateaued, decided to try her hand at forgery in order to make easy money in the world of rare collectibles. Turns out, this con artist is very good at crafting fake letters from the likes of Fanny Brice and Noël Coward.

“I just loved her. … I loved the thought of someone who just doesn’t need to be validated,” McCarthy said of Israel, who died in 2014 at the age of 75. “It didn’t make things easier for her at all, being caustic and tricky, but I thought especially in today’s world where everybody needs so much validation from other people on social media, I just loved the thought of Lee being like, ‘I don’t need you to like me, I don’t even really want you to like me.’”

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is chiefly a drama — and it’s often a sad one, focusing on this very unhappy person — but McCarthy’s ornery comic persona is well-suited to playing this cuttingly witty grump. McCarthy figures out how to get you to feel bad for someone who doesn’t deserve your compassion — and to laugh along with her jaundiced worldview. In her comedies, McCarthy often latches onto misfits, jerks and the deeply deluded. It’s wonderfully poetic that she got some of her best reviews — and her second Oscar nomination — doing the same thing in a far more melancholy true-life tale.

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