Is obesity a laughing matter? | Tom Shone | Film |

“Nine out of 10 of the guys I fuck are black guys!” yells Melissa McCarthy merrily from her car window in the new comedy The Heat. The film is one of those cop-buddy flicks like 48 Hours, in which an uptight pencil-pusher finds himself partnered with a slovenly renegade in order to solve a crime, the twist being that both pencil-pusher and renegade here are both women: the former played by Sandra Bullock, who cannot disguise her disgust at her new partner detective Mullins (Melissa McCarthy), a Red Sox fan in plus-size sweatpants and a T-shirt dating back to 1978, with hair like a haystack, who sits munching on red-hot chili peppers, as if to heat up the torrents of filth that spill from her mouth. “What is this,” asks a bewildered Bullock. “Training Day?”

No, just a follow-up of sorts to director Paul Feig’s 2010 hit, Bridesmaids, which starred McCarthy as a lusty gun-loving hip-thrusting man-eater in a newsboy cap, sandwiched in with all the stick-thin bridesmaids as if nothing was amiss.

“Megan was a cartoon of aggressive sexuality, wildly, crudely lusty,” said Time critic Mary Pols. “She’s two parodies at once – the butch girl and the man everyone runs from at a cocktail party – braided together with the joke of a plus-sized figure.”

Although not everyone was as alert to the nuance of McCarthy’s schtick. “Melissa McCarthy is a gimmick comedian who has devoted her short career to being obese and obnoxious with equal success,” wrote Rex Reed in a review of a subsequent film of McCarthy’s, Identity Thief, which called McCarthy a “female hippo” and “tractor-sized”.

Responding to those comments in the New York Times last week, McCarthy said:

I felt really bad for someone who is swimming in so much hate. I just thought, that’s someone who’s in a really bad spot, and I am in such a happy spot. I laugh my head off every day with my husband and my kids who are mooning me and singing me songs.

Reed then came back with this:

My point was that I object to using health issues like obesity as comic talking points … [McCarthy] is basing her career on being obnoxious and being overweight. And I don’t think that’s funny. I have too many friends that have died of obesity-related illnesses, heart problems and diabetes, and I have actually lost friends to this. I have helped people try to lose weight, and I don’t find this to be the subject of a lot of humor. I have a perfect right to say that. My review was really more about the movie and about the character she plays in the movie than it is about her. I don’t care how much she weighs.

Reed’s initial comments were vile, and his attempts to spin them as concern for the obese is laughable, but his wriggling does inadvertently shed light on a thorny matter. Weight has traditionally been comic fodder – even, and sometimes especially, by those who wield it. The fat man as comic figure goes all the way back to Fatty Arbuckle, although a lot of that ‘fat’ was actually muscle. Arbuckle was extraordinarily graceful in the way he moved, refusing gags in which he got stuck in windows or doorways, instead seeking out skits of physical liberation – a ballet sequence in which he pirhouettes across the stage (Back Stage), or a dance in which he juggles pots and pans before spinning pies like discus across the room (The Cook).

Director Mack Sennett, recounting his first meeting with Arbuckle, said he “skipped up the stairs as lightly as Fred Astaire” and, “without warning went into a feather light step, clapped his hands and did a backward somersault as graceful as a girl tumbler”.

It’s a curious paradox of the fat clown – and one missed entirely by the modern phenomenon of “fat suits” – that he must have more control, more balance, more understanding of their plumb-lines than a skinny one, not less. Oliver Hardy was revealed as a graceful dancer in the Laurel and Hardy shorts. John Belushi executed a perfect series of cartwheels and backflips in The Blues Brothers. John Candy showed off his martial arts prowess in Delirious. Jack Black gave a remarkable display of body-popping in High Fidelity, spinning like a human top. The reason should be obvious, even to someone as lethargic in his critical perceptions as Reed: comedy, even physical comedy, is not a form that favors heaviness of effect. It is an art of precisely calibration, Quartz watch timing and gymnastic balance. It aspires to a state of weightlessness.

By that measure, The Heat is not much. It is too long, for one thing, the scenes burrowing into themselves to turn up good bits of improv, and relying on one too many jokes that do trade on McCarthy’s weight: wriggling her way out of a parked car through the window, spewing profanity all the way, for example. But what was true of Arbuckle is also true of McCarthy: she is remarkably lithe, as that vertical leg hoist in Bridesdmaids first told us, and there are a number of scenes here – most notably one in which she leads Bullock onto the dancefloor in a sting operation – that showcase that nimbleness.

And needless to say, when she opens her mouth and lets loose with one of those geysers of obscenity – on everything from her boss’s tiny balls to her new partner’s vagina – you just sit back and enjoy the ride. In those moments alone, the movie achieves take-off.