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No, Melissa McCarthy doesn’t always play the same character

Ahead of the live-action The Little Mermaid release date, we've got some thoughts on a criticism too often levied at comedy movies actor Melissa McCarthy.

The Little Mermaid: Melissa McCarthy as Ursula

In 2023, Disney is whisking cinema-goers away to lush blue waters for their latest live-action remake: The Little Mermaid. The new movie reimagines the animated classic and boasts heavy-duty frontline talent to give it a good shot at drowning out its box-office contenders.

Among the names in The Little Mermaid cast are the likes of Halle Bailey, Awkwafina, and Melissa McCarthy. The latter was an unsurprising choice considering fan-casting had her picked out from square-go to portray Ursula, the villainous sea witch.

It’s a wonderful opportunity for her. She’s starred in big movies before, but never on this colossal scale. However, McCarthy is somewhat of a household name despite having mostly starred in mid-budget comedy movies after getting her big break in the beloved comfort series Gilmore Girls.

Gilmore Girls: Melissa McCarthy as Sookie in Gilmore Girls
She may not be a blue-screen expert or one of the highest-paid actresses, but she has been a reliable draw in the comedy genre and has worked consistently in an industry that makes that tricky.

This is largely due to McCarthy being aware of where her strengths lie. A frequent collaborator with husband Ben Falcone and female-fronted-comedy filmmaker Paul Feig, McCarthy is best known for roles where she plays the underdog, using the fact she does not fit the typical movie star pigeon-holed image to her advantage.

Despite being a smart businesswoman, undeniably successful in multiple genres, twice Oscar-nominated, and frequently a delight even in the most lowbrow of her on-screen appearances, anytime she trends on social media, we’re forced to hear about how she ‘always plays the same character’. This is an unfair claim that minimizes her accomplishments and boils her down to her physical appearance.

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To say this argument is made purely in bad faith with no credibility ignores the fact that McCarthy has tonally done similar performances, but it does remove nuance from the conversation. For some reason, this nuance is not afforded to her by the same people who will happily give the likes of Seth Rogen — one of those ‘always plays themselves’ actors in his own right — a pass simply because they like him more.

If we look at McCarthy’s performances, even narrowing them down to Falcone’s work, in isolation there’s still breadth, so why ignore it? Sure, in broad strokes, she is often a messy underdog battling deep-rooted insecurities, with the scripts’ laughs relying on physical humor and loud delivery.

But even in these roles, there is variety: in Tammy, her character is frantic and explosive, in The Boss, she’s more calculated and Karen-esque, and in Spy, she’s anxious and unassuming. The throughline, in the eyes of many, seems to be mainly the way she looks, the subtleties of each character falling by the wayside in people’s minds.

Thor: Love and Thunder: Melissa McCarthy in God's Favourite Idiot

To claim those movies as stand-out character pieces where a full range of acting is displayed would be a stretch (as in, your arm will just snap right off), but how many other big names in the genre play characters with small-to-moderate amounts of crossover without anyone saying a single word? It’s lots.

Escaping the confines of comedies, we can find slight typecasting or niches for performers in every genre. Jenna Ortega recently signed on for Tim Burton‘s gothic horror Beetlejuice 2 after wrapping on Wednesday and Scream. She found something she excels in and is rightly cashing it in.

Is it slightly irritating when someone pulls out the same tricks over and over? It can be, but to say McCarthy does this speaks to the most egregiously wrong part of this debate: the total ignorance towards her dramatic work.

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Can You Ever Forgive Me? is one of 2018’s best drama movies, and is about literary fraud that sees McCarthy play a lonely woman who digs her grave with deception. It earned her an Oscar nomination, and not her first (2011’s Bridesmaids). To put it plainly, it’s the trump card in this fuss.

A transformative, quiet, delicate performance, Can You Ever Forgive Me? verifies she can and has played against type. But if she’d sooner star in her husband’s millionth vehicle for her, earn a thick paycheck, and play ball in a familiar court similarly to Rogen or Will Ferrell-types, can she not do that without having her achievements and abilities minimized with blanket statements that box in actors who don’t fit Hollywood’s ideals?

The claim rings of an often-repeated sentiment online that the industry has somehow gone overboard with the representation of minorities in entertainment.

Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, and Rose Byrne in Bridesmaids

Is there really that much of it, apparently played out in the exact same manner every time, or are we just less used to seeing it, so it gets registered as an abnormal blur with no unique flavors in our biased memory banks? It would be fairer to critique from other angles, instead of painting everything with the same dismissive brush.

McCarthy has taken the box she was put in and utilized it to become one of the most recognizable actresses in her field. If moviegoers declare you’re one thing regardless of evidence, why not lean into it?

However, she’s so demonstrably far from a one-trick pony that it has become increasingly difficult to not defend her honor against these takes. And if she didn’t stand out against others in her talent pool, would anyone have even noticed the diversity of her roles or lack thereof?

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Now that that’s sorted, let’s get deep with the best movies of all time and 10 things we learned from The Little Mermaid press conference.