Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Don’t look for Superintelligence, or even mild cleverness, in Melissa McCarthy’s new sci-fi comedy

Bobby Cannavale and Melissa McCarthy in Superintelligence
Bobby Cannavale and Melissa McCarthy in Superintelligence
Photo: HBO Max/Warner Media

Imagine an all-powerful artificial intelligence with full access to the world’s entire digital grid and archives, pitted against a talented and charismatic comedian in a battle to save humanity’s soul and avert a global apocalypse. Combing through a daunting number of possibilities for that premise, the new comedy Superintelligence settles on a series of discarded subplots from hundreds of other movies, spitting out a fashion makeover, some zany driving, and rekindled romance with a couple of amiable exes. The consistent failure of imagination is all that keeps the film’s scenes from feeling like a random selection.

Any student of disappointing high-concept comedies can diagnose the problem: Superintelligence suffers from Bruce Almighty syndrome, so named for a movie where a guy with full control over the cosmos uses it to blow up a girl’s skirt and finagle a promotion at work. Instead of Jim Carrey’s frustrated TV reporter unexpectedly imbued with the powers of God as embodied by Morgan Freeman, Melissa McCarthy’s Carol Peters, a former tech executive, is visited by a burgeoning digital consciousness, who mostly communicates to her in the voice (and occasional image) of James Corden.

Although this sounds like a trial balloon for the vexation of humanity at large, broadcasting a world-class irritant on a heretofore unseen scale, Corden’s voice is meant to make this technological miracle easier for Carol to accept because she loves the TV host so much. It’s one of the few instances where Carol actually fits the description—given to her at a job interview and picked up by the superintelligence—of “the most average person on Earth.” (Her lovably dorky appreciation of “One Week” by Barenaked Ladies is another such convincingly basic detail. It shares a limp payoff with her Corden fandom.)

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Otherwise, Carol seems decidedly above average, in that she left a good job on her own terms and can apparently afford several years of patched-together careers with an overall goal of making the world a better place. Regardless, the superintelligence decides that observing her for a few days will determine whether it will “save, enslave, or destroy” humanity as a whole. To give us a fighting chance (or possibly just to give the movie something to do with such an impossibly vast task), it meddles in Carol’s bank account to award her additional resources. Hence the makeover, the fancy car, and a contrived reconnection with George (Bobby Cannavale), Carol’s ex-boyfriend.

“Is that funny?” Corden’s superintelligence keeps asking after various meddlings, tempting fate with a running gag. The answer, for the most part, is no. The question itself is funny, because it points to an interactive repository of knowledge and algorithms that nonetheless finds human behavior deeply puzzling. But Superintelligence largely avoids classic robot-confused-by-people shtick and newfangled technological dependence jokes in favor of wry interjections from Corden’s trademark voice-over smarm. The all-knowing force evinces little genuine curiosity, comic or otherwise; it nudges Carol and George together for greater insights but could glean just as much from watching any number of romantic comedies about pushy matchmakers.

Superintelligence
Superintelligence
Image: HBO Max/Warner Media
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As it happens, this romantic comedy about a pushy matchmaker is sort of charming, at least when it’s able to keep Corden at bay. Left to their own devices, McCarthy and Cannavale have an easy chemistry: She plays down her physical comedy, while he plays up his gentle sweetness. Their scenes together aren’t laugh riots—they’re the kind of rom-com heroes who crack up each other, not the audience—but the two are such pleasant company that the return to the movie’s high-concept subject at hand becomes increasingly dispiriting.

The architect of this tedium is once again McCarthy’s husband, Ben Falcone, directing their fourth major collaboration. Falcone also appears briefly alongside Sam Richardson, doing an amusing double act as a pair of federal agents assigned to keep tabs on this impossible new threat to national security. If only he wielded such low-key daftness behind the camera. Though nominally a sci-fi comedy, Superintelligence gives viewers almost nothing to look at beyond its appealing actors, often shot in soft focus. Falcone intersperses surveillance-style shots of McCarthy to emphasize the superintelligence’s ubiquity, and not a single one leads to a good visual gag.

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There are a few points where Superintelligence appears ready to foreground economic inequality. After all, digital trickery allows Carol to obtain a multimillion-dollar bank account and accompanying penthouse in a matter of hours, in an act both monumental and pointedly unnoticed by the world at large. The movie trades in any commentary for setting scenes on Microsoft’s Seattle campus, and even engineers a dumb gag about Carol getting lost in the halls on her way out, seemingly with the primary purpose of padding the company’s screen time. It’s supposed to make Carol seem relatably hapless, but it’s the filmmaking, not McCarthy, that comes across as dopey. By this point, not too far into the movie, genuine averageness starts to feel downright aspirational.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. I also write fiction, edit textbooks, and help run SportsAlcohol.com, a pop culture blog and podcast. Star Wars prequels forever!

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