By Greg Popil
Ever since her breakthrough performance in 2011’s surprise smash “Bridesmaids,” Melissa McCarthy has carved out a comfortable niche for herself as America’s anti-sweetheart, playing boorish, gluttonous loudmouths who upset the organized, uptight lives of the actors hired to play her straight men. In last year’s “Identity Thief” and “The Heat,” those roles were played by Jason Bateman and Sandra Bullock, respectively, and while neither movie was a classic, the pairings gave McCarthy a moor, locking down her antics and simultaneously giving the audience a window of relative sanity from which to view her wackiness.
“Tammy,” on the other hand, is McCarthy unmoored. Within the movie’s first 10 minutes, McCarthy’s titular character has her car and nose smashed by a deer (she tries to give it long-distance mouth-to-mouth. Don’t ask), is fired from her fast food job, and catches her husband cheating on her. All of these incidents, as well as all the other conflicts in the film, are handled by Tammy in the same way: Cursing, whining and throwing food at people. Tammy complains to her husband that he’s never cooked dinner for her. It’s possible that he was worried it would end up all over the dining room walls.
Strapped for cash and understandably desperate to get out of town for awhile, Tammy pairs up with her flighty, alcoholic grandmother, played by Susan Sarandon, and hits the road for Niagara Falls, because that’s as good a generic road trip destination as one can imagine, and the Grand Canyon was closed that week, I guess. Sarandon, who knows a thing or two about female-centric road trip movies, could have played the straight role here, and she occasionally gets in the kind of understated comedic jab that this movie desperately lacks (“Muscle shirts are for muscles.”), but her character is written as too broadly to whip up a good sense of chemistry. One minute Sarandon is wincing as McCarthy smashes a jet ski into a deck, the next she’s having sex in the back of a car while Tammy looks on in horror. The tonal inconsistency kills the rhythm of the jokes.
McCarthy clearly wants “Tammy” to be a showcase for her loutish brand of comedy, and she’s not afraid to use her size as a weapon, in the proud tradition of obese legends like John Belushi and Chris Farley. But her mistake (and it is her mistake: as executive producer and co-writer, McCarthy has no one else to blame) isn’t going broad, it’s going dumb, and mean. It isn’t hard to imagine a version of this movie that works, with Tammy as an overweight slob who is nevertheless sharp and witty enough to win us over. And McCarthy could play that character, as she’s talented both as a comedian (check out the outtake over the closing credits of “This is 40.” Her ability to keep a straight face and continuously escalate the viciousness of her monologue while the other actors crack up is really impressive) and an actress. Late in the movie, Tammy has to face a terrible loss, and McCarthy sells the moment. But it could have been even better if we had been allowed to care for her at all for the first two acts.
“Tammy” also finds room for a romance with a charming, handsome guy played by Ben Falcone, McCarthy’s husband and the movie’s director. This subplot is posited as an inverse of the slew of comedies where average Joes like Seth Rogen end up romancing stunningly attractive women. And that’s fine: women need wish fulfillment fantasies too. But the problem isn’t McCarthy’s looks, it’s that she comes across as such an idiot (There’s an early scene where she doesn’t understand what the word “pattern” means. Ha ha), that it’s hard to see what Falcone sees in her. Their later scenes show nice chemistry, but it’s impossible to reconcile that Tammy from those moments with the sour oaf from the opening scenes. Tammy doesn’t grow organically, she switches from one gear to the other as the screenplay requires.
The movie does manage to steer into the skid in its final act, when Tammy and her grandmother crash with a lesbian couple, delightfully played by Kathy Bates and Sandra Oh. Bates and Oh are such fun that I kind of wish the movie had been about them, with Tammy as a supporting role. Bates finally sits Tammy down in the movie’s final minutes and tells her exactly what she needs to hear: that she’s behaving like a spoiled, idiotic child and needs to grow the hell up. I wanted to cheer. But it’s too little, too late, at least for this movie. McCarthy is set to star with Bill Murray this fall in the promising-looking “St. Vincent.” One hopes that she heeds Bates’ advice, reigns in her worst instincts, and lets her talent shine.