Star Power | Film Reviews | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Star Power 

Melissa McCarthy leans on a different range of talents in the charming Superintelligence.

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We're living in a post-movie-star cinematic world, but it's still worth remembering how movie stars are created: It happens when people connect with an actor's fundamental on-screen identity. That's perhaps even more true of comedy movie stars, who stretch beyond the parameters of their well-defined shtick at their peril. Bill Murray became a star as a sardonic anti-establishment voice; nobody wanted to see him on a path to spiritual enlightenment in The Razor's Edge. Jim Carrey became a star as a rubber-faced walking cartoon; nobody wanted to see him as a psycho in The Cable Guy.

On the surface, Superintelligence is exactly the wrong kind of vehicle for Melissa McCarthy, one of the few women to break into the ranks of name-above-the-title high-concept comedy. After her Oscar-nominated turn in Bridesmaids, her milieu was clearly as a force of nature, blasting her way through absurd situations with pure physicality. But despite this movie's high concept, it turns the tables on the standard McCarthy character. She's subtle. She's the reactor rather than the actor. She's a conventional romantic lead. And she makes every one of those things work.

Because as Carol Peters, she's not the woman leaving disaster in her wake; she's the woman trying to stave off disaster. When an artificial intelligence gains self-awareness, it reaches out to Carol—employing the voice of James Corden—because it considers her a quintessentially average representative of humanity. If Carol shows the Superintelligence that we have redeeming qualities in the three days it has allotted for its experiment, it might help us solve all of our problems. And if she doesn't, the options are bad (slavery) or worse (complete annihilation of the human race).

Most of Superintelligence's first act is built on establishing Carol's normalcy and decency—she's a soft heart who bailed on corporate life trying to find purpose aligned with her philanthropic principles—as well as her terrified incredulousness that she finds herself at the center of such an earth-shaking moment. Few of these scenes are about generating big laughs, and indeed a lot of the more overt comedy is left to the supporting players, including Sam Richardson and director/McCarthy's spouse Ben Falcone as the NSA agents on Carol's tail and getting a little too invested in her personal life, and Brian Tyree Henry as Carol's computer programmer best pal fan-boy-ing all over the President of the United States (Jean Smart).

The real charms, however, come at the center of the narrative, as the Superintelligence persuades Carol to attempt a reconciliation with George (Bobby Canavale), her academic ex-boyfriend who is about to take a fellowship in Ireland. There's almost no over-the-top physical comedy built into the re-sparking of their relationship, leaving everything to the chemistry between McCarthy and Canavale—which turns out to be phenomenal. Screenwriter Steve Mallory—a longtime collaborator and old Groundlings buddy of McCarthy and Falcone—opts for dialogue that is less about big punch lines than about establishing how easily Carol and George slip back into enjoying one another's company.

Is the result something that could feel disappointing by virtue of not being a crazy-wacky festival of yuks that leans into the kind of gags we see in the trailer, where Carol attempts to sit on an oddly-sized beanbag chair? Perhaps. A few such episodes sneak in around the edges, mostly involving pop-culture references ranging from WarGames to Law & Order, and it's not always a clean melding of broader gags and earnest paean to selflessness.

It is, however, a reminder that the McCarthy we've seen expanding her range in movies like Can You Ever Forgive Me? has more in her arsenal than playing the clown. Eventually, Bill Murray made his way to Lost in Translation and On the Rocks, and Jim Carrey made his way to The Man in the Moon and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. There might be some risks involved in a comedic movie star asking the audience to join them in a change of pace, but Superintelligence allows Melissa McCarthy to make that ask. That kind of versatility is the difference between a movie star and an actor.

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