By Lynn Venhaus
When husband-and-wife collaborators Ben Falcone and Melissa McCarthy work together on screen, a low bar has been set, for their previous four movies together had little to redeem them. Yet “Thunder Force,” while just barely a cut above the others, has its moments.
And only a few, for “Thunder Force” is a hodge-podge of tone, temperament and style that squanders opportunities to boost its likability. The strongest aspect is the cast, who looks like they are having fun indulging in all the silliness.
And there is plenty of that, along with slapstick and repetitive gags. Maybe the jokes don’t all land, but let’s keep hammering them again and again just in case people will finally ‘get’ them.
In a world terrorized by super villains, scientist Emily Stanton (Octavia Spencer) has developed a way to give regular people superpowers. That happens to her estranged best friend Lydia Berman (Melissa McCarthy), who is injected with super strength, when she is poking around. Emily can become invisible. These powers, to be used for good, can protect their city from evil. But can Thunder Force save Chicago from these Miscreants?
After the disappointing “Tammy” in 2014 and the unwatchable “Life of the Party” in 2018, (I skipped “The Boss” in 2016), one wonders why writer-director Falcone still gets to helm projects with his Oscar-nominated wife McCarthy but in November, they presented another lackluster high concept “Superintelligence” on HBOMax and now the forced “Thunder Force” on Netflix.
McCarthy is playing the same character that she has milked for laughs since her breakout role in “Bridesmaids” in 2011 – an uncouth loudmouth slob who beats to her own drummer. The common thread there, along with “The Heat,” “Spy” and “Ghostbusters,” is director Paul Feig, who knows how to reign in her penchant for absurd riffs.
Feig’s direction is disciplined, unlike her husband of 16 years, who lets her go on and on and on – singing random pop songs, doing goofy impressions and just making a good punchline less amusing by not knowing when to stop.
Why does she stay in her comfort zone when we know she is capable of much more — the Oscar-nominated “Can You Forgive Me?” and an Emmy as host of “Saturday Night Live” in 2017 (and that hilarious Sean Spicer impression)?
The Falcones met doing improvisational sketch comedy at The Groundlings in L.A., and I think their strength is humor in short doses. This movie is like a “SNL” sketch that has gone on far too long.
Apparently, McCarthy and Spencer met during that time, and have been real-life BFFs since then. But you would not know of their connection by the way the relationship is framed in the film.
Emily is a brain who devotes all her time to her work, with little time for frivolity. Lydia is a lonely hard-drinking forklift operator. Neither of them are endearing as good friends, thrown together in school as misfits, but neither is the loyal true-blue friend they should be.
So, they magically team up again after years of estrangement?
The plot holes don’t help. The Miscreants are former borderline sociopaths empowered by interstellar rays in the early ‘80s into super-villains who wreak havoc on the streets of Chicago.
Laser, played by “The Guardians of Galaxy” breakout Pom Klementieff dressed as a dominatrix, hurls blue bolts for destruction.
The thug-boss mayor, played over-the-top by – of course – Bobby Cannavale, referred to as “The King,” and is straight out of Gotham City’s playbook, appearing like a cartoon buffoon in “Batman Returns.”
Falcone also plays one of his henchmen, and after unfortunate skin tasering, has a running gag on how the unsightly scabs appear on his face. Once was enough but the fact it’s repeated is indicative of this hot mess.
And Oscar winner Melissa Leo is totally wasted in a tough-lady operative role.
Now, for the good parts. Jason Bateman, who worked with McCarthy in “Identity Thief” in 2013, is a half-creant, with crab pincer claws as arms. Inexplicably, The Crab and Lydia are drawn to each other (and there is a foreplay scene with drawn butter and Old Bay seasoning). You can tell he’s just slumming, and that’s OK because he knows how to deliver one-liners in a deadpan way. and has a gift for comic timing.
This film, however, belongs to the younger ladies. In flashback, McCarthy’s daughter Vivian Falcone plays her in middle school – and is terrific – and Bria Danielle Singleton is strong as young Emily. They could have had a whole movie developed around them, and that would have been OK, preferable to the middle-age edition.
That said, the jokes about hefty middle-age women in spandex suits and entering and exiting a sports car are funny and relatable.
Taylor Mosby is winning as Emily’s daughter Tracy.
The fact that this movie wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement, but it was enjoyable in spurts.
“Thunder Force” is an action comedy directed and written by Ben Falcone. It stars Melissa McCarthy, Octavia Spencer, Bobby Cannavale, Jason Bateman, Taylor Mosby. Melissa Leo and Pom Klementieff. Rated PG-13 for some action/violence, language and mild suggestive material, the run time is: 1 hour, 46 minutes. The film is available on Netflix beginning April 9. Lynn’s Grade: D+
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat daily newspaper. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association.