It’s very easy to root for Melissa McCarthy. Not only is her success a reminder to young girls everywhere that you don’t have to be a certain type of figure to be successful in showbusiness, but she’s proven time and time again that she has legitimate talent. It’s been 10 years since her breakthrough performance in Bridesmaids, a showcase of physical comedy that was so brazen and shocking that it earned her an Oscar nomination. Since then, McCarthy has starred-in and produced comedies that bent to her charm and energy. It certainly helped that some of those projects were written and directed by her husband Ben Falcone, but it was still impressive that McCarthy had such strong control over her own career. More so when she was able to show her range as a dramatic actor in Can You Ever Forgive Me? and The Kitchen. But like Adam Sandler, seeing McCarthy in such nuanced and mature roles makes one wonder why she’d even bother going back to the simplicity of mainstream comedy? And also like Sandler, her schtick seems to be wearing out its welcome.
Thunder Force, her latest effort, features McCarthy as Chicago construction worker Lydia, a beer-drinking classic rock fan stuck in a rut. That is until she hears that her childhood friend Emily (Octavia Spencer) is coming back to town for their high school reunion. Though a bookworm as a kid, Emily is now running a multi-million dollar genetics company trying to develop a formula that gives people superpowers. Unfortunately, Lydia stumbles into Emily’s private lab and accidentally gets injected with a version of the formula to become super strong. Lydia takes a different version of the formula to gain invisibility and the two ex-besties start training to fight crime. With Chicago overrun by a destructive laser-blasting baddie (Pom Klementieff), a blase crab-handed gang leader (Jason Bateman) and a shady politician (Bobby Cannavale), it’s up to Emily and Lydia (rechristened as Thunder Force) to get past their differences and save the city.
While Falcone has the sole screenwriting credit here, it’s easy to assume McCarthy was involved in the writing process. Her jokes range from telling pop culture references loudly to drawing attention to her own physical limitations. Thunder Force also has the Judd Apatow problem where a character starts a bit but has it drag on well after the punchline is dropped to milk it of every laugh possible. The movie has a few laughs, especially when Bateman and McCarthy are together, but most of the comedic bits are so boring and lazily executed. It doesn’t even take advantage of being a superhero story with its dull action scenes and noticeably-cheap special effects budget (see Bateman’s pathetic crab-claw prosthetics for proof). The set-up for this superpowered world is that a meteor hit the Earth in the 80s and somehow only gave superpowers to people with sociopathic behavior. While that might be a logical plot twist for something like Amazon’s The Boys to pull off, Thunder Force does absolutely nothing with that concept. Instead, we have a typical “former best friends become friends again” plot with no emotion put into it and nothing interesting about Lydia and Emily’s relationship. There’s a sub-message in the story about nerd-shaming and being proud of one’s intelligence, but it’s presented in a way so basic you’d think you’re watching an ABC sitcom.
You’d think having super strength would open more doors for McCarthy to take her physical energy through, but Thunder Force only has so much imagination (and money) to make that happen. Her bumbling performance doesn’t include anything ridiculous or shocking (hence the movie’s PG-13 rating) and she barely has any zingers or one-liners to be funny on her own. At least she cares more about the material than Spencer, who is just blatantly phoning it in. To be fair, it’s not like the script gives her much to work with aside from the generic science geek. But even then, Spencer doesn’t even try to either match McCarthy’s energy or be the flummoxed straight-man to her wackiness. Cannavale is dressed like a Dick Tracy villain without the wild make-up while Klementieff, no stranger to the superhero world, looks like a background extra from The Crow and has about as much development. Bateman does his usual everyman schtick that really becomes a herculean effort considering the ridiculous props he has to wear for the whole movie (guess he had to repay Netflix for that Ozark Emmy somehow). The only real charm in the cast comes from Taylor Mosby (Criminal Minds) as Emily’s bright teenage daughter, bringing the right combination of comedic time and earnestness in a movie that’s bereft of both.
If Thunder Force is anything, it’s the end of an era for McCarthy. She appears bored and unenthused by her own catered material, doing this to pass the time before her next major project. And if the laziness and low-brow humor of Thunder Force doesn’t phase its own star, imagine what it does to a viewing audience? McCarthy is obviously a very talented and funny person, but Thunder Force is a hollow vehicle for her skills. She needs to leave this part of her life behind or find a new avenue of comedy to test herself with. It’s not that she needs to go away, she just needs to go somewhere else.
Thunder Force is now streaming on Netflix.