Melissa McCarthy's 20 best films – ranked!

Peter Bradshaw
·9-min read
<span>Photograph: Matt Baron/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Matt Baron/Rex/Shutterstock

20. The Life of David Gale (2003)

One of Melissa McCarthy’s many early, quirky cameos comes in the final film from the director Alan Parker – a mystery crime drama with a hint of Fritz Lang. Kevin Spacey stars as an anti-capital-punishment campaigner who finds himself on death row after being convicted of murder. McCarthy plays Nico, a goth girl in fishnets and piercings who gives creepy tours of the crime scene.

19. Life As We Know It (2010)

McCarthy plays the comedy-neighbour DeeDee in this wacky romcom starring Katherine Heigl and Josh Duhamel, thrown together when their best friends die tragically, leaving the pair to care for their child. DeeDee, a mother of four, is very pushy and knowledgable, giving advice in that supercilious style that McCarthy does so well.

18. The Hangover Part III (2013)

When McCarthy’s career blew up after 2011’s Bridesmaids, she was crowbarred into the notorious Hangover threequel. When Alan, played by Zack Galifianakis, has a breakdown, he has to be taken by his “wolfpack” buddies to a rehab facility; they come across McCarthy’s wacky pawnshop owner, Cassie, who has a romantic spark with Alan, bonding with him over their love of Billy Joel.

17. Life of the Party (2018)

This is a broad comedy that McCarthy co-wrote with her husband, Ben Falcone, who directed her in this and other films. This is not too bad: she plays a woman who has a midlife crisis after her marriage breaks up and goes back to college to finish her degree, unselfconsciously enjoying the chance to party and make out with boys – to the intense embarrassment of her daughter, a fellow student.

16. Identity Thief (2013)

Identity Thief is a film that showcases the classic McCarthy comedy persona: out of control, with a kind of blue-collar outspokenness and sociopathic indifference to other people’s feelings. Jason Bateman (on very dull straight-man form) plays a businessman whose credit card details have been stolen by McCarthy; the two wind up on an odd-couple road trip together.

15. Pumpkin (2002)

Christina Ricci stars in this comedy of political incorrectness as an uptight sorority princess at college who gets into a relationship with a young man with learning disabilities called “Pumpkin”. He is competing in the “Challenged Games” – an event she is supposedly supporting for patronising charitable reasons. McCarthy plays Cici Pinkus, her fellow student.

14. Go (1999)

This is the cult comedy that Doug Liman made just after Swingers, a Tarantino-ish multistoryliner about a drug deal that goes horribly wrong. McCarthy made her movie debut in it with a small but eye-catching role as Sandra, the girl who distractedly answers the door to the two heroes while on the phone.

13. Cook Off! (2007, released 2017)

Three years before The Great British Bake Off there was this knockabout mockumentary about a bunch of uproarious losers, weirdos and no-hopers who compete in a cookery show on TV. McCarthy plays the goofy and hopeless Amber, whose sloshed-together dish is inedible. The film was shelved, but finally released 10 years later to capitalise on McCarthy’s success – and maybe even those British bakers.

12. Charlie’s Angels (2000)

This film version of the 70s TV show, with Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu (and Bill Murray playing Bosley), was once a huge girl-power cinema event. McCarthy has a tiny role as Doris, a nerdy admin person who is cringingly submissive when Liu’s Alex shows up in a sexy leather business suit (and with the other Angels in male disguise). It is the kind of cameo she could do in her sleep.

11. The Happytime Murders (2018)

McCarthy took a lead role in this little-loved but undoubtedly strange and startling comedy from the director Brian Henson, son of the puppet legend Jim. Set in a world where humans and puppets coexist, the resulting comedy has a decidedly odd adult-Muppet style to it, perhaps in the vein of Avenue Q. McCarthy plays Connie, a cop who has to team up with a puppet officer to solve a serial-killer case. Weird.

10. The Boss (2016)

The Boss is a high-concept, women-led comedy of the sort that maybe only McCarthy (and perhaps Amy Schumer) can get made. Here, again, she is directed by her husband, Ben Falcone. She plays Michelle Darnell, an obnoxious entrepreneur and megawealthy business celebrity who goes to prison for insider trading. On coming out, she has to crash at the humble apartment of her former PA (Kristen Bell), whom she used to abuse outrageously. Of course, the comedy resides in queenly McCarthy not getting that she has come down in the world and can’t get away with stuff.

9. This is 40 (2012)

Judd Apatow’s This is 40 (the title an eerie echo of his The 40-Year-Old Virgin) is about Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann, a stressed couple with kids: upmarket, professional and educated, but worried about money and not-so-secretly freaked out at the prospect of their imminent birthdays. When one of their kids gets into a scrap with another child at school, our heroes clash with McCarthy’s opposing parent, the comedy residing in her being crassly and tactlessly more blue-collar.

8. St Vincent (2014)

A rare serious, or serious-ish, role for McCarthy in stressed, down-at-heel mode. Perhaps rarer still, it is a part that requires her to play opposite a male actor who isn’t easily upstaged: Bill Murray. She is the single mum with an unhappy young son who finds herself having to rely on her dodgy neighbour for babysitting – this is Vince, the cantankerous Vietnam vet played by Murray. McCarthy very plausibly supplies the tough female strength and worldliness to ballast Murray’s freewheeling, uncaring style.

7. Tammy (2014)

This is the most successful of McCarthy’s collaborations with her director and co-screenwriter husband – and one of the most successful of her chaotic rebel personae. She is Tammy, who loses her job in a fast-food joint and comes home early to find her cheating husband enjoying a cosy meal with their neighbour. So she takes off on a crazy road trip with her wacky grandma, played by Susan Sarandon. Her face is well suited to a classic type of pre-emptive ironic disdain that fails to protect against life’s humiliations: the tears of rage of a clown. It also expresses vulnerability, intelligence and sexiness, too.

6. Ghostbusters (2016)

The director who has persistently given McCarthy her biggest roles and moments has been that shrewd comedy veteran Paul Feig. He was in charge of this highly enjoyable gender-switch reboot of Ghostbusters, which was subject to some obnoxious proto-Trump trolling in its day. McCarthy plays Abby Yates, a gung-ho spirit chaser who teams up with Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones to kick ectoplasmic ass.

5. The Heat (2013)

Bridesmaids had just made McCarthy a star and this was the vehicle that showed she had the staying power: an outrageous female buddy-cop movie. Sandra Bullock was the committed hard-working FBI agent, McCarthy the aggressive, ball-busting Boston cop. They had a glorious comedy chemistry and a lovely screen soromance, satirising the macho cliches of buddy-cop thrillers.

4. Bridesmaids (2011)

Here it is, the film that got McCarthy an Oscar nomination as best supporting actress and made her a comedy A-lister (although, at the time, I thought it would be the launching pad for Kristen Wiig). She is one of the always-the-bridesmaid crew of single women who are strangers to each other, but brought together to support Maya Rudolph, who is getting hitched. McCarthy was the outrageously, confrontationally inappropriate one – weird, improv-talkative, with no concern for other people’s wussy sensitivities. (Her role was, in fact, a little like Zach Galifianakis’s in The Hangover, the character with whom McCarthy was to be romantically paired in The Hangover Part III.) She became a legend when her character took a traumatised dump in the bathroom sink in the fancy shop where the bride was buying her gown – but her honest craziness unlocks all their emotional constipation.

3. Spy (2015)

For many McCarthy fans, this action comedy is the high point of her career; it is certainly the one where she gets the strongest and most conventionally starry centre-stage role. She plays the homely, mumsy CIA administrator Susan Cooper, a boring deskbound type, like a “flute player in a wedding group”. She keeps in touch, via her headset, with the super-cool field agent on whom she has a huge crush – Jude Law. Inevitably, disaster strikes and Susan has no choice but to get out there and be a real spy herself, zooming around on motorbikes and handling guns while nervous and bemused about the whole business as she fires off gags and zingers.

2. The Nines (2007)

The screenwriter of the 2000 version of Charlie’s Angels, John August, made his directing debut with this underrated film, a mind-bending mystery of alternative realities. McCarthy was given something that she has hardly been given since – a chance to show that she is a really good straight actor. In three worlds, Ryan Reynolds plays a troubled actor, a TV writer and a video game designer. In these worlds, McCarthy plays, respectively, his PR handler, an actor in his TV show and his wife. There is nothing comedic or ironic about McCarthy’s personae and the film plays against her brand of self-aware comedy. It is a great triple-decker performance in one of the cult films of the 00s.

1. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

This earned McCarthy her second Oscar nomination, this time for best actress, and it perfectly fuses her talents for comedy and straight acting, her ability to be tragic and funny. Most importantly, it showcases her almost unique line in being defiantly unlikable and unsympathetic – her way of portraying characters whose ghastliness is placed before you on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. She plays a real-life character, Lee Israel, a bestselling author and alcoholic who falls on hard times in the 80s when the New York publishing scene seems to have no further use for her. She finds an alternative career forging literary manuscripts from the likes of Noël Coward and Dorothy Parker, using her boozy pal Jack, played by Richard E Grant, to hawk these fake documents to credulous booksellers so that she is not recognised. McCarthy’s face is a mask of gleeful contempt for the people she hoodwinks – but also for herself, as she invents pseudo-witty things for famous literary figures to say and almost believes that she is a great writer somehow by association. This taps into all the pathos, irony and absurdity of McCarthy’s comedy, but without the emollient need to provide sympathy – or a happy ending.