Superintelligence is a strange experiment of a film. Maybe that’s by design since the crux of the movie pivots on a sentient artificial intelligence studying Melissa McCarthy for three days, using her “averageness” as a barometer to determine if humanity is worth saving. But the real test of the film appears to be if you cast an entire troupe of charming actors, with McCarthy as the lead, and not include one laugh… will audiences still think they’re watching a comedy?
To be sure there are plenty of pleasant actors doing pleasant enough work in Superintelligence, from McCarthy as everywoman Carol Peters to Bobby Cannavale as her dude bro, professorial ex; Jean Smart is the president; and Brian Tyree Henry is Carol’s BFF. And then of course there’s James Corden, who voices the sardonic computer overlord with a gift for gab.
But between them there is nary a chortle, guffaw, or chuckle. Rather Superintelligence washes over you like Corden’s AI machinations wash over McCarthy: with active engagement kept to a minimum.
The basic setup is McCarthy’s Carol is a woman who’s never failed but never really succeeded. Pushing middle age, she’s just gotten by and is now applying for a new tech job in Seattle despite the future having seemingly left her behind. In truth though, the future has picked her as its new guinea pig.
Waking up one day to find that a mysterious voice is speaking out of all her electronic devices, from the alarm clock to rice maker, Carol discovers she’s been chosen for an experiment. A new superintelligence has the power to end world hunger or kill us all in nuclear holocaust, and it’s selected Carol as a representative for the human race (and selected Corden’s voice because it knows she’s a fan of the late night host). But really this is a not-so-subtle way to become a covert romantic comedy, with an omnipotent AI floating in the ether and wingman-ing Carol’s attempts to win back George (Cannavale). The government is also there to do something.
Superintelligence marks the fourth McCarthy film that her husband Ben Falcone has directed. It’s also the first to appear on streaming via HBO Max. However, to my surprise after watching the film, it was originally intended for theatrical release, with New Line Cinema completing the film in 2019 ahead of a Christmas release that year… which the studio then rightly scrapped in favor of HBO.
It’s easy to see why. Despite starring a generally reliable box office star like McCarthy, who recently earned a very deserved Oscar nomination for Can You Ever Forgive Me?, the picture seemed destined in its bones (or is that code?) to wind up on streaming. Playing like one of the more underdeveloped Netflix comedies that streamers greenlight exclusively to feed hungry algorithms, Superintelligence is a movie meant to be watched with a smartphone in hand, and maybe a rice cooker on in the back too.
With little in the way of actual wit or humor, Superintelligence attempts to coast by on the affability of its cast, all while its search engine finds no results for the word “funny.” In that respect, it has much in common with previous Falcone-McCarthy films, including The Boss and the downright dreary Tammy.
It’s a shame, because unlike those films, Superintelligence has an amusing premise. Your mileage might vary in regards to James Corden, but hearing his voice come out of a toaster oven and tell you the end of the world is nigh would be understandably baffling. And a comedian as gifted as McCarthy should have a field day playing that reaction. But Superintelligence is so determined to maintain Carol as an everyday gal, and one in a by the numbers rom-com no less, that her film passes by like so much digital white noise.
For some Superintelligence will do just fine as that background blur on the TV. But the experience is so passive that those same people likely wouldn’t notice if Corden’s voice suddenly started talking to them.
Superintelligence premieres on Nov. 26 on HBO Max.