HBO Max's 'Superintelligence' Is Bogged Down By the Worst Type of Comedy
The movie could have been so much funnier!
Superintelligence, a movie about a sweet-but-frumpy everywoman who is chosen by an all-powerful artificial intelligence to prove that humans are a species worthy of saving, is a riff on WarGames. I know this, and anyone who watched it on HBO Max knows this, because the movie makes a subtle but easy to spot reference to WarGames towards the middle, and then explains the reference in the scene to really make sure that you get it. It's the worst. It's the worst. It's the worst type of comic writing, and Superintelligence is positively swimming in it. Not even swimming. Treading water. Swimming would imply anyone is actually getting anywhere.
Carol Peters (Melissa McCarthy) is a smart yet unsuccessful woman looking to provide her digital expertise to any company who will take her, when one day she's shocked to discover that an artificial intelligence (voiced by James Corden) has chosen her to be his guinea pig so he can learn a thing or two about humanity. The superintelligence puppeteers her around, outfitting her in new clothes and a near-silent Tesla as she bemoans her boring life and her wish to reconnect with George (Bobby Cannavale), the one that got away. Meanwhile, after she alerts a group of tech experts to the existence of the AI, they contact the President (Jean Smart) who plans to launch an attack to wipe out the superintelligence in case it's hostile. It's a funny pitch for what is basically a romantic comedy, but it shoots its own jokes in the feet so many times no one's laughing by the end.
Everyone knows the best way to take the fun out of a joke is to explain it. (Take it from someone who manages a whole list attempting to explain why certain things are funny.) There's been this nebulous little trend in modern comedy, especially in the movies of the past decade, to really belabor certain jokes, attempting to squeeze every ounce of fun out of them for maximum effect. What this does, instead, is it stops the scene absolutely dead while the characters try to navigate their way around this weird joke-explainy cataract. It happens a lot in Superintelligence, including during a moment when McCarthy gets lost inside an office building, and the AI chimes in only after she's spent a considerable amount of time trying to find the exit. They take nearly a full minute to argue about how he knows where to go and why he didn't give her directions sooner. Brian Tyree Henry, who plays a tech guy named Dennis, is the victim of a stupendously drawn-out failed handshake moment whose length and awkwardness would have been much funnier if this wasn't clearly the only trick this movie knows how to pull.
This isn't even the first movie made in the last ten years to make sly jabs at WarGames: in 2014's Captain America: The Winter Soldier, when Cap and Black Widow find a bunker full of ancient computer banks hooked up to a virtual copy of the mind of a villain from Cap's past, Black Widow leans in to one of the terminals and says, in a creepy voice, "Would you like to play a game?" (Which, if I remember correctly, many of my generation wrongly interpreted to be a reference to Saw.) But that was it. There was no functional clarification question from a second character to explain the line to the audience from anyone else in the scene. If you didn't get it, you'd have to go read the wiki. And if you did, you could allow yourself a satisfied little "ha" while the scene moved on.
The thing is, though, that part of Melissa McCarthy's brand of humor comes from extending many of her funny moments out for longer periods of time—something that she is genuinely good at. Take her "Lulu Diamonds" SNL sketch, where her character, a sort of Mae West type Old Hollywood glamour figure, can't stop falling down a staircase. Or even her characterization of erstwhile White House press secretary Sean Spicer, whom she escalated into a red-faced, screaming hobgoblin who rode her podium like a Segway, mowing down any hapless journalist who got in the way. McCarthy knows how to make this style of comedy work, which is why it's so frustrating to see her get so trapped in it. When the fifth or sixth drawn-out funny moment hits in the span of 20 minutes, instead of laughing, you'll be checking your watch.
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