Melissa McCarthy’s laugh-free HBO Max comedy crystallizes a grim future where movies have to satisfy algorithms but not theatrical audiences.
Okay, that’s it, no more movies about lonely white people getting unsolicited life advice from sentient apps on their phones. “Her” was cute and all, but the combined torpor of last year’s “Jexi” and Melissa McCarthy’s equally grim new “Superintelligence” is enough to retcon Spike Jonze’s bittersweet cyber-romance into the Manhattan Project of Hollywood’s worst new sub-genre.
In hindsight, of course, it’s all too easy to see how Jonze became death, the destroyer of worlds: The high-concept premise of his 2013 film, so delicate that it might shatter in someone else’s hands, doubles as low-hanging fruit for hacky comedies about regular people being terrorized by the technology that we’ve created for our convenience. A screenwriter pitches something like, “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if Siri wanted to mess with you?” A studio executive hears, “We only have to pay top dollar to one of our leads.” A director thinks, “This means we can just add all the humor in post.”
And faster than you can say, “Alexa, show me a piece of streaming content that crystallizes the grim future of feature-length comedies that have to satisfy an algorithm but not a theatrical audience,” you’re watching a lifeless, laugh-free slab of nothing like “Superintelligence,” which starts with “what if Skynet, but with jokes?” and then just gasps for air for the next 105 minutes.
McCarthy stars as Seattleite Carol Peters, who used to be a big shot at Yahoo before she decided there was more to life than making money; now she spends her time tending to rescue dogs and haranguing her old friend Dennis (a wildly overqualified Brian Tyree Henry) into finding her a new job… even though the one thing we know about Carol is that she wanted out of the tech business. For that matter, it’s also extremely hard to believe that Carol was ever in the tech business. She uses a landline, “dresses like a woman who works at a bird rescue” (to quote someone’s assessment of her style), and generally seems baffled by even the simplest piece of technology.
It feels like they were trying to paint her as a web 1.0 girl in a web 2.0 world, but overshot and ended up with a luddite. Also, why is she interviewing for an executive job at a Tinder-like dating site called Badunkadunk.com (jokes!) if she hates tech and left Yahoo with a big enough golden parachute to land her a nice waterfront apartment? It’s never a good sign when the lead character of a comedy is a contradictory mess by the end of the opening credits, but “Superintelligence” stops the bleeding by just not developing Carol any further after that. Problem solved.
Instead, Steve Mallory’s script decides to make Carol “the most average person in the world,” a combination of words that prompts a sentient superintelligence to perk up and become obsessed with her. This rogue A.I. — never given a name or much of anything else — has decided that it will study the most representative human alive for three days and then decide whether or not her species is worth preserving. Maybe that seemed like a difficult judgment to make back when Mallory started writing the script, but these days, a Roomba could make that call in a matter of seconds.
Anyway, the superintelligence follows Carol home and starts talking to her, the most basic woman on Earth, in the voice of her favorite celebrity: James Corden. If that’s meant to be a backhanded compliment, the movie doesn’t seem to be aware of it. And if it’s meant to be funny, the movie should probably have introduced the fact that Carol is one of “Corden’s Wardens” beforehand, because that is just a very basic thing about how humor works.
Oh, and before you ask: Yes, “Superintelligence” builds to a “Carpool Karaoke” joke, and no, there isn’t any logical explanation for how the A.I. eventually hijacks Corden’s image in addition to his voice so it can torment Carol on television screens and the jumbotron at a Mariners game (brace yourself for the comedy stylings of Ken Griffey Jr.).
And that’s what most of this movie is: The chaotic neutral superintelligence exerting control on Carol’s world as she freaks out and it takes notes. Sometimes it opts for anarchy, such as the bit where it causes a car crash outside her apartment to prove its power. Other times, the A.I. offers wish fulfillment, as it reroutes millions to Carol’s bank account and buys her a Tesla. Imagine “Bedazzled,” but the devil isn’t just in the details because it’s also in your pocket, your car, and your toaster all at the same time. Imagine Melissa McCarthy screaming in shock at inanimate objects while a disembodied James Corden giggles to himself off-screen.
Imagine the stagnant and discomforting silence that would have gone airborne in any of the theaters that were scheduled to play this movie before director Ben Falcone made the unusually inspired creative decision to skip that slaughterhouse and feed this misfire straight into the gaping maw of the streaming void.
The superintelligence eventually becomes intrigued by the way that Carol pines for her happy-go-lucky ex (the winsome Bobby Cannavale, grasping at straws) and schemes to get them back together despite the fact that they have all the romantic chemistry of a process server and someone who’s being sued. Hijinx ensue, and — in a genuinely refreshing pushback against convention — the superintelligence doesn’t remain a secret. Instead, the government gets wind of the threat, and President Jean Smart gets to cosplay as Hillary Clinton in a few moribund scenes in her Washington D.C. war room.
Henry’s character is also there for some reason, and, as we’re reminded ad nauseum, he has a mighty big crush on the president. There’s something genuinely painful about watching two actors this talented beat the same tired bit into the ground for so long, but Falcone — whose approach to comedy might be likened to the Trump legal team’s approach to lawsuits — seems convinced that the ninth time might be the charm. Honestly, it’s funnier when Giuliani does it.
“Superintelligence” is the fourth time that Falcone has directed McCarthy (his wife of 15 years), and their previous three comedies together have a cumulative Rotten Tomatoes score of 83 percent. This one may not add to that total. McCarthy is one of the comedic luminaries of her generation, and yet there may not be a single good laugh spread between “Tammy,” “The Boss,” and “Life of the Party” — this critic admittedly smiled at an unexpected reference to “The Help” in her latest film, but the goodwill from that gag is soon erased by the film’s repeated insistence that the A.I. shouldn’t understand how jokes work.
To harp on the gap in quality between the likes of “Spy” and “Superintelligence” would be cruel, and Falcone seems like a genuinely sweet person despite his tin ear for directing comedy. For those who don’t know him by name, Falcone radiates a gentle kindness that makes for a reliably warm screen presence, and his bit part here as a government agent alongside the great Sam Richardson provides some of the film’s least clenched moments. But at this point there’s no use pretending that all of McCarthy’s star vehicles are created equal. Watching “Superintelligence” with the knowledge that Falcone and McCarthy have a Netflix superhero movie on the horizon (and something called “Margie Claus” on tap after that), it seems increasingly clear that McCarthy is following in Adam Sandler’s footsteps, and choosing to bifurcate her career into two distinct categories: Streaming fare that allows her to spend time with the people she cares about, and more challenging work like “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” whenever the mood strikes.
And that’s her prerogative — everyone’s gotta make a living, and so far as this critic is concerned McCarthy gets a lifetime pass for the years of service she put in to “Gilmore Girls,” alone. But there’s something a bit noxious about she and Falcone using the content-indifferent streaming pipeline to fob off a comedy about the dark side of digital convenience and the distancing effect of the screens that have come between us. “Superintelligence” doesn’t satirize the problem, “Superintelligence” is the problem. The only way to outsmart the system is to watch something else instead.
“Superintelligence” is now streaming on HBO Max.