Is America ready for the new Melissa McCarthy?

In Can You Ever Forgive Me?, McCarthy plays an unlikable woman you can't laugh at. Is America ready?

Melissa McCarthy.
(Image credit: Mary Cybulski)

America loves to laugh at Melissa McCarthy. We laughed at her stealing pies from a fast-food joint in Tammy; we laughed at her sandwich-related foreplay in Bridesmaids; some of us even laughed at her being sexually harassed by puppets in The Happytime Murders. She's made a very successful career out of this "repetitious shtick," as one critic derisively put it. In fact, McCarthy might be the most bankable comedian working in Hollywood today, earning far more per budget than her male counterparts.

The reason likely comes down to the type of character she plays: the unlikeable woman. Whether lewd, frumpy, bossy, or downright cruel, McCarthy shocks us by portraying the kind of woman we prefer not to see. Her "obnoxious" characters click with audiences because they're the butt of the joke — we love to laugh at the overambitious woman, the "ugly friend," the desperate mom. But with Friday's release of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, McCarthy is in her first dramatic lead role to date, putting the appeal of the unlikeable woman to the test.

McCarthy's breakout role is probably still her most famous. After appearing on Gilmore Girls and landing a number of smaller roles on screen through the aughts, McCarthy exploded into the popular conscious in Bridesmaids as Megan Price, a woman who is lewd, unfashionable, sexually assertive, shameless, and, most importantly, funny in a diarrhea-in-the-sink sort of way. McCarthy would go on to perform as a foul-mouthed cop in The Heat, an annoyingly competent CIA agent in Spy, and, this year alone, as a housewife who goes back to college and a puppet homicide detective. "I think when a female character acts more defiant, it's seen as a little more crazy," McCarthy has said of her roles. "There are women in the world like this, we're just not used to seeing them portrayed."

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McCarthy's success as an actress has come from flaunting the truisms of the Hollywood system she works within, portraying women we aren't used to seeing. She isn't stick-thin, she wasn't terribly young when she broke out, and she loves to tackle roles that aren't expected of most Hollywood actresses. "She checks her vanity at the door, and inhabits her characters without pretense or worry about how she looks or comes off, and audiences love that," an analyst at the entertainment industry research group Rentrak told The Wrap.

McCarthy takes on one of her most unlikeable characters yet in Can You Ever Forgive Me? Dropping all but her most sardonic humor, McCarthy plays Lee Israel, a lonely, alcoholic biographer who forged literary letters in order to survive the changing publishing landscape of the 1990s. It is a testament to McCarthy's acting that we fall in love with Lee, who steals toilet paper rolls and a coat, insults half a dozen well-meaning people, and viciously takes down Tom Clancy, all within the first half hour. In an interview with E! News, McCarthy agreed that Lee, who died in 2014, was "challenging," but emphasized that she is a rare face to see in a blockbuster because women are pushed "to be cleaned up and more polite."

Lee is not that: McCarthy dons a messy gray-brown wig for the role, and she is swallowed by her winter coats as she wanders, proud and bristling, the chilly streets of New York City. Her apartment is squalid, and one of the rare moments we see her visibly hurt is when her companions react to its smell — she shuts the front door in humiliation, hiding behind it in her private, crushing pain. The performance is the best of McCarthy's career, not because of some emphasis on dramatic acting over comedic, but because it would be even easier to despise Lee, a real person, than the comedic caricatures for which McCarthy is better known. McCarthy's Lee is the most sensitively and complexly balanced character of her career.

I only fear that the film won't get the reception it deserves because America finds it hard to empathize with women like Lee. The character is as unlikeable as anyone else in McCarthy's filmography, but her edges are not softened with humor. While detestable male characters are practically their own genre, proud, angry, and unfriendly women are far more likely to be treated as punchlines than leads in their own stories.

Can audiences still love Melissa McCarthy if they can't laugh at her?

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