Rebel Wilson’s career is clearly on the rise. The 27-year-old Australian comic actress was introduced to American audiences as the roommate of Kristin Wiig’s character in Bridesmaids. She starred alongside Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fischer, and Lizzy Caplan in Bachelorette (2012), playing against type as the sensible ingenue in an ensemble of female basket cases. In 2012 she also appeared as “Fat Amy” in the a capella comedy Pitch Perfect. And last night she hosted the MTV Movie Awards, her first starring role. She wore a black spandex dominatrix suit and thrust her pelvis with wild abandon. Some of her jokes landed punchily, some (notably a bit about black men liking “fat white chicks” and another about nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis’s drinking problem) fizzled audibly in the enormous room. It was a risky, bold, self-possessed performance, and a totally singular one.
And yet Wilson is relentlessly compared to another actress: Melissa McCarthy, despite the fact that the two are not much alike at all. Wilson was originally considered for McCarthy’s part in Bridesmaids, and Alessandra Stanley wrote a piece last year lumping both women into the category of “women rebelling against the ever more exacting standard of beauty in show business.” Introducing McCarthy last night, Wilson even joked, “I know what you’re thinking, bring on a large, superfunny woman.” Wilson and McCarthy are two of the best contemporary female comedians, but yoking them together is not particularly useful.
First of all, next to Wilson’s, McCarthy’s comedy looks fairly conservative. McCarthy is a master of slapstick: hosting “Saturday Night Live” two weeks ago, she performed her opening monologue on perilously high heels, flailing and tripping and dragging her body across the floor. As Ted Scheinman wrote in the Los Angeles Review of Books a few months ago, McCarthy projects a “bodily fearlessness” that is a far cry from the “cute, carefully choreographic clumsiness” that has historically characterized female slapstick. But for all her broad, confident physical comedy, her persona is studiously inoffensive. In interviews, she generally takes pains not to seem lewd or crass; there is no grossness or excessive self-effacement. On a recent Kimmel appearance she talked about her experience as a cheerleader in high school but avoided making any easy jokes about her weight. She has said of starring in the sitcom “Mike and Molly,” about a couple who meets at Overeaters Anonymous, that originally she “wasn’t interested in doing anything about weight—not because it hurt my feelings but because it was probably going to be pretty boring.” Her comfort with her body is key to her comedy, but her weight is not a big part of her shtick.
In this, Wilson could not be more different. Her slapstick is a different species entirely, based more on genuine mortification of the flesh than goofily inflicting abuse on her body. In one particularly startling visual bit last night, she made a speech about body image as a flap on her dress fell away to reveal a prosthetic third nipple. Wilson is constantly talking about her weight and making jokes about her own attractiveness. And the boldest stroke may be the way she invites men to make fun of her body, preempting criticism by participating in it. “I’m just a fat, simple girl from Australia,” she said in the opening to the MTV Movie Awards. “Rebel, you may be simple, you may be fat, you may have no boyfriend, but you’re going to be the greatest Australian female host in MTV history,” James Franco replied. She recently appeared on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” clutching a candy bar. “You brought a snack?” Kimmel asked her. “I brought you my favorite chocolate all the way from Australia,” she said. “Oh that’s nice!” he replied.” Except you ate part of it.” At the risk of making the culturesphere implode from one more reference to Lena Dunham, it seems worth mentioning that the ironic performance-artiness of Dunham’s nakedness makes Wilson’s audacious invocation of the male gaze—not just to judge the imperfect female shape, to deem it unsexy or shocking or gross, but to openly laugh at it, alongside Wilson—feel like a new kind of subversion.
At the MTV Movie Awards she made numerous jokes about lusting after Channing Tatum and her desire to make out with teenybopper icon Zac Efron. Hers is a cartoonish, diminished sexuality, the feverish hormonal reveries of a thirteen-year-old girl. And her eagerness to joke about her body is clearly a kind of deflection. ("You call yourself 'Fat Amy'?" says one willowy, sundress-clad co-ed in Pitch Perfect. “Yeah so twig bitches like you don’t do it behind my back,” Amy replies.) But Wilson is so charming because she has an authentic quality of not-giving-a-damn. Even as some of her zingers bombed last night, she happily announced that she’d written all her own jokes. Her appeal is a visible commitment to being herself, about as anti-establishment as you can get within the pop cultural establishment, a riskier version of Jennifer Lawrence’s brand of girlfriend-casual ingenue tripping over her dress and joking about tequila shots.
McCarthy’s comedy has a certain crowd-pleasing competence, a dutiful attention to the mechanics of slapstick, but Wilson’s shtick feels looser and wilder. And while McCarthy tends to be demure and polite when not playing a character, Wilson’s jokes seem at times to leave men baffled, unsure of how to respond. In a recent interview with Jay Leno, Wilson joked of her upcoming MTV hosting gig: “I have to dance, have to sing, have to try to look hot, that’ll probably be the hardest part.” “No!” Leno sputtered lamely. “I think you’re a beautiful girl! You are. You’re a beautiful girl!” It was an intensely strange moment that Wilson endured with good-natured amusement. And when she revealed that third nipple last night, the camera lingered on assorted male faces in the audiences, looking stricken and queasy. It was refreshing, and very funny, to see how little Wilson seemed to care.