This article was first published in 2018 and has been updated to include Melissa McCarthy’s more recent films, including this past weekend’s release of The Starling on Netflix.
No one in the Hollywood biosphere is quite like Melissa McCarthy. In an industry that’s still dominated by male-driven movies, she’s nearly alone among female stars when it comes to her ability to open big, mainstream comedies that aren’t solely rom-coms. And not only is McCarthy a star, she’s a writer and producer of a lot of her own vehicles, collaborating with husband Ben Falcone on a series of unapologetically broad comedies that, for the most part, have clicked with audiences.
An alumnus of the Groundlings, the actress cut her teeth doing sketch work and developing funny characters before being cast as Sookie on Gilmore Girls. Years of movie bit-parts later, she landed her own series, Mike & Molly, which won her an Emmy. But it wasn’t until 2011’s Bridesmaids that she broke through on the big screen: As Megan Price, the crass weirdo who ends up being the voice of reason, McCarthy earned an Oscar nomination and stole the movie from her more-famous co-stars.
Since then, McCarthy has parlayed that success into a string of hits whose quality ranges from sublime to “Please, god, don’t make me ever watch Identity Thief again.” She’s risked typecasting herself as the bulldozing brute, engaging in increasingly desperate slapstick, but her best work argues that she’s selling herself short if she thinks that’s what audiences love most about her. Give her two minutes as a surprise cameo in something like Central Intelligence, and she simply radiates goofy goodness like no one else in modern movies. Edgy yet sweet, comforting yet sharp, Melissa McCarthy hasn’t always found material worthy of her talents, but she always tackles it with gusto.
Ranking her performances proves to be a bit bittersweet. Quite simply, there are more valleys than peaks — too often, we root for her more than the movie she’s in. We decided to forgo most of her blink-and-you’ll-miss-her walk-ons to focus on the more major work. May there be more major work to come in the near future.
19. The Hangover Part III (2013)
Yeah, you forgot she was in this, didn’t you? Or, more likely, you didn’t see it: After the obviously half-assed The Hangover Part II, many didn’t even bother with this one. (Part III made less than half of what Part II did.) McCarthy was a last-minute addition to the cast after Bridesmaids blew up, playing a pawnshop owner meant as a romantic interest for Zach Galifianakis’s Alan. She looks more excited to be there than Galifianakis, but just barely. It’s okay if you forget you ever read this paragraph.
18. The Boss (2016)
One of the four McCarthy films directed by her husband Ben Falcone, this is the worst of a sorry lot; it’s strange, actually, how the movies she makes with Falcone, which you’d think would be familial labors of love, are actually among the most cynical, infantile of all her films. This one is the most desperate of all of them, with McCarthy as a billionaire entrepreneur who loses everything and must rebuild her empire with the help of Kristen Bell and some Girl Scouts. Any positive lesson here is lost in all the hackneyed jokes, and by the end the movie falls apart entirely. None of the Falcone movies are very good, but this is the most senseless.
17. Identity Thief (2013)
McCarthy’s first starring vehicle after Bridesmaids rode the wave of that breakthrough smash, except with none of the charm. She plays Diane, a woman who lives off other people’s identities — and their credit cards. One day, a milquetoast accountant (Jason Bateman) discovers that Diane has hacked his information, which leads to a crazy cross-country trip in which the two characters are reluctantly stuck together. McCarthy is more annoying than delightful as this intentionally unlovable character, and she pushes too hard for her laughs, taking risks that the underwritten role can’t support.
16. Pretty Ugly People (2010)
The debut film of director Tate Taylor is a grim little doodle about an overweight woman (Missi Pyle) who calls up a bunch of old friends who haven’t seen her in years (including McCarthy and Octavia Spencer) and invites them to a wilderness retreat to reveal … she’s skinny now! She’s still a jerk, though, and so is everyone else in the film, something Taylor wants us to find funny but is wholly insufferable. McCarthy is actually one of the two subdued, subtle performances in the film — Spencer gives the other — but everyone else is too loathsome to spend any time with. It’s hard to believe Taylor would make The Help three years later.
15. Tammy (2014)
The first of the Falcone films, Tammy is among the least funny — Falcone seems to strand his wife with nothing to do but ad-lib as fast as she can, trying to find something, anything that will work. After a thudding first half involving McCarthy’s criminal Tammy and her grandmother (Susan Sarandon), it at least ends up hanging out with Kathy Bates and Sandra Oh as a warm married couple. McCarthy doesn’t really have a character to play, but nobody does here.
14. The Starling (2021)
McCarthy first hooked up with director Theodore Melfi for the milquetoast drama St. Vincent. But that forgettable film was at least tolerably schmaltzy: There is no escaping the black hole of sap that is Netflix’s The Starling, which casts her as Lilly, a wife grieving for the loss of her baby girl. Adding to her woes is the fact that her husband (Chris O’Dowd) has sought counseling at a psychiatric center, leaving her alone to deal with her sorrow. But don’t worry, because her life is going to turn around thanks to an ornery bird in her yard — [leans over to companion] that’s the starling — and a prickly veterinarian (Kevin Kline) who used to be a therapist. Tear-jerking in the most manipulative ways, the film is helped somewhat by the sincerity of the performances — specifically that of McCarthy, who somehow makes some of this maudlin nonsense work. But on the whole, the movie mostly confirms her talent as a dramatic actress while convincing us that, too often, she doesn’t pick the best material for her gifts.
13. Life of the Party (2018)
A strained premise — a dowdy mom (McCarthy) is dumped by her husband, so she goes back to college with her daughter — is at least made with good cheer, and it is helped tremendously by Maya Rudolph in a supporting role as McCarthy’s best friend. It’s still pedestrian and uninspired, and the timing is oddly tin-eared. Still, McCarthy seems to be enjoying herself.
12. Thunder Force (2021)
The movies that McCarthy makes with Falcone — this is now the fifth — are beginning to feel less like movies and more like Sandler-esque excuses to get a bunch of old friends together and goof around on Netflix’s dime. This one stars McCarthy as another boorish sweetheart, one who ends up accidentally getting superpowers from her genius childhood best friend (Octavia Spencer), and they team together for some sort of caped superhero team. The best scenes feature McCarthy and Spencer (who actually used to be roommates when they were starting out their careers) having fun with each other, but the movie Falcone puts them in is so hackneyed and cheap it actually plays a little like knockoff children’s television. (Imagine if Robert Rodriguez’s Spy Kids movies were directed by … well, by Ben Falcone.) Jason Bateman has a few shining moments as a half-crab, half-person, but otherwise this is a lot of talent sitting around, enjoying each other’s company, waiting for the actual movie to start.
11. The Happytime Murders (2018)
Because of her boisterous spirit, big heart, and animated expressions, McCarthy has always felt a little like a human Muppet. So casting her in The Happytime Murders is brilliant: This R-rated, super-inappropriate mystery-thriller-comedy sees her playing Connie Edwards, a tough-as-nails Los Angeles detective who reunites with her old partner, a former cop turned private-eye puppet (voiced by Bill Barretta), to hunt down a serial killer who’s knocking off actors from an old children’s show. Addicted to drugs and swearing like a sailor, McCarthy’s character really gets into the film’s deadpan send-up of cop dramas, nicely embodying Happytime Murders’ air of snotty irreverence. But the film’s “Hey, look! These puppets curse and have lots of sex!” shtick gets old fast. One suspects that if this had been a sketch on Saturday Night Live, where McCarthy shines, it could have been a lot funnier — and certainly a lot shorter.
10. Superintelligence (2020)
The best of the Falcone movies (though that’s not saying much), this high-concept comedy features McCarthy as Carol, a good-hearted, aggressively average single woman in Seattle who is chosen by a Skynet-esque artificial intelligence supercomputer (voiced, gratingly, by James Corden) to be a referendum on whether or not humanity lives or dies. As you might expect from a Falcone movie, this leads to many obvious, uninventive gags, but this is the first of his films that just simply lets McCarthy be normal, and sweet, and charming. Her romantic subplot with Bobby Cannavale (who is winningly befuddled throughout) is far more involving than the main plot, and the movie’s much better when it’s just leaving McCarthy and Cannavalle alone. But it rarely leaves them alone.
9. St. Vincent (2014)
A change-of-pace role for McCarthy after her brash blockbusters, St. Vincent sees her playing Maggie, a divorced, harried single mom whose impressionable son (Jaeden Lieberher) meets Vincent, a crotchety old so-and-so played by Bill Murray. This feel-good drama, directed by Hidden Figures filmmaker Theodore Melfi, never really surprises you — Vincent seems like a jerk but, turns out, he’s got a heart of gold — and McCarthy seems happy to just be in the background, allowing Murray and Lieberher to carry the film. After a series of high-wattage star vehicles, St. Vincent was an opportunity to downshift to portray a more muted character. It’s too bad the character is so clichéd, although McCarthy’s loveliness goes a long way.
8. This Is 40 (2012)
If you don’t particularly like the central couple of Judd Apatow’s maybe-too-personal pseudo-comedy — and we’ll confess, they’re not our cup of tea — you’ll enjoy watching McCarthy’s walk-on role here. As a mother of a high-school student who has had a disagreement with that couple, she shows up, rips them to shreds, and then leaves the movie. Bonus points for a rare funny credit bloopers scene too:
We could have watched her go all day there.
7. The Heat (2013)
Reteaming with Bridesmaids director Paul Feig, McCarthy plays an exaggerated version of her Oscar-nominated character in this takedown of cop dramas. Shannon is a good detective, but she’s also an insult-a-minute jerk who loves antagonizing her stuck-up partner Sarah (Sandra Bullock). The Heat squeezes as many jokes out of that setup as it can, and it turns out to be not enough. And part of the problem is McCarthy, whose vulgar, uncouth character doesn’t have that many dimensions. But because The Heat was a hit, it only encouraged her to keep pulling this shtick.
6. Ghostbusters (2016)
Amid the online freak-outs and man-child tantrums about ruined childhoods that accompanied the release of this beleaguered film, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that the 2016 Ghostbusters remake was, in fact, an actual movie and not just a social-media controversy. Imperfect and hampered by its need to be everything to everyone — loyal to franchise fans, slavishly faithful to blockbuster conventions — the film features McCarthy in a performance that actually lets her be the straight woman to her more outrageous supporting players. (In some ways, Kate McKinnon really gets the more traditional McCarthy role.) Much like in Spy, McCarthy plays the ordinary, awkward gal, and her character’s attempt to repair her relationship with her former best friend (Kristen Wiig) is Ghostbusters’ emotional through line. McCarthy gives the film heart amidst the laughs: Neither a disaster nor a triumph, this Ghostbusters ultimately feels like a fun idea that didn’t get the right execution.
5. The Kitchen (2019)
This sub-Widows is a hit-or-miss affair, but one of its best aspects is how it provides McCarthy with a role that lets her show off her growing confidence as a leading lady. Neither an obvious McCarthy comedic vehicle nor a change-of-pace dramatic turn, The Kitchen is an ensemble thriller in which she, alongside Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss, plays the wife of an Irish mobster who decides to take the reins of her destiny after her man is hauled off to prison. Even when the movie loses its way, McCarthy is a dynamo as a woman finally finding her voice. Even better, the film further illustrates that she doesn’t need to play extreme types in order to keep an audience riveted. There’s depth and nuance to her turn in The Kitchen, which isn’t easy to achieve when assassinations and severed limbs are daily occupational hazards.
4. The Nines (2007)
Talk to longtime McCarthy fans and they’ll inevitably hit you with the same question: “Seriously, have you seen The Nines?” The feature directorial debut of prolific screenwriter John August has an experimental edge — three separate stories, each starring Ryan Reynolds, about men awash in existential crises. And in each, McCarthy pops up. In one, she’s the hotshot PR agent to Reynolds’s actor character. In another, she’s his wife. The Nines wrestles with art, commerce, life, the existence of God, and other big questions, and if it doesn’t always work, it nonetheless proves to be fantastic platform for both Reynolds and McCarthy, allowing them space to give multiple nuanced performances. McCarthy in particular gets to run the full gamut of emotions: On the big screen, this is easily her most moving and complicated turn. Her career would send her off in other, far more commercial directions. But The Nines is a reminder of what she could also do.
3. Bridesmaids (2011)
The movie that made McCarthy a star — and, don’t forget, got her her first Oscar nomination — remains one of the biggest comedy hits of all time, and McCarthy might have been the primary reason why. She is a force of nature here, a juggernaut who bowls over everything in her path: terrifying, hilarious and absolutely irresistible. She is also the film’s moral center, the guiding force, the one letting all the other women know that they don’t have to back down or apologize for anything. She has shown more range in other roles, but she’s never been as relentless and overwhelmingly uproarious as she was here.
2. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)
Her finest dramatic performance is, in fact, also rather comic — although it’s more of the crying-on-the-inside variety of humor. In Marielle Heller’s bittersweet true-life tale, she plays Lee Israel, a once-successful biographer who’s on the commercial decline in the early 1990s. So she hits upon an ingenious idea: She’ll forge letters from famous authors and sell them to New York’s gullible antiquities dealers. It’s also a highly unethical idea, and much of the power of Can You Ever Forgive Me? stems from watching Israel very slowly circle the drain as she tries to stay a step ahead of suspicion while dealing with her own emotional issues. She and her fellow Oscar nominee Richard E. Grant (as bon vivant Jack Hock) are a sharp-elbowed pair who relish their whip-smart banter, but since her co-star got most of the accolades, it’s easy to overlook how quietly devastating McCarthy is in the role. Lee Israel was a fiercely funny woman, but never before had McCarthy had a chance to explore the sadness that’s often bottled up in her broad comedic performances. In Can You Ever Forgive Me?, that desperation is all over Israel’s face, movingly.
1. Spy (2015)
Spy is the perfect Melissa McCarthy film, in part because it doesn’t really feel like a Melissa McCarthy film. Writer-director Paul Feig wrote the role of Susan, a deskbound CIA agent who goes into the field for the first time, without McCarthy in mind, figuring she was too busy with other projects. Maybe that’s why Spy doesn’t rely so much on the broad slapstick and crass characterizations that were becoming McCarthy’s M.O. Instead, Susan is a very relatable, sympathetic figure: someone who’s long been underestimated and finally gets a chance to blossom. None of this makes her any less funny, of course. Throughout Spy, Feig and McCarthy find plenty of opportunities to make jokes out of Susan’s difficulty dealing with the continental, high-stakes world of spycraft, and the actress’s sweetness has rarely been better utilized. Susan cracks jokes and kicks some ass while finding herself in the process. Spy isn’t just a victory for Susan, but for McCarthy as well.
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.