Not that this should influence your like or dislike of TAMMY, the new film starring and co-written (with her director husband, Ben Falcone) by Melissa McCarthy, but this was supposed be McCarthy at her most pure and unfiltered—a raw, R-rated, take-no-prisoners variation of the McCarthy personality (BRIDESMAIDS, THE HEAT, IDENTITY THIEF), birthed in improv performances in New York and Los Angeles, and put up on the screen like the perfect trophy head mounted on a hunter’s wall. This was supposed to be the best that she’s got. Uh boy…
I once had a very famous comedic actor confess to me that some producers give him shitty scripts and say, “We’ll fix it with improv when we shoot,” and it almost never works. You still have to have something on the page, even if you don’t use it. You don’t have to like a lead character, but you at least have to understand her (in the case of Tammy), and then you have to do something to make her interesting and in some way relatable, so that we care what happens to her. Even in her previous starring roles, McCarthy has been paired with someone to essentially balance out her spirited, slightly insane gifts. But in TAMMY, there’s no one to fill that role. She’s alone, ripping up scenery (sometimes literally) and being generally unpleasant to a host of equally unpleasant characters.
TAMMY is meant to be a road picture, putting McCarthy as the recently jilted wife of Nat Faxon’s Greg, taking a trip with her grandmother (Susan Sarandon). She gets fired from her fast food job and comes home to discover Greg having a lovely, romantic dinner with their neighbor/his mistress, Missi (Toni Collette). In one of the films funnier running gags, the fact that Greg and Missi don’t even seem to care that Tammy catches them doing nothing more than normal couple things is mildly amusing. Tammy retreats to her parents house (about two doors down from her place), looking for a functioning car to run away in. When grandma volunteers her car and a bit of much-needed cash, Tammy is on board; let the hilarity commence.
I said that McCarthy has no partner in comedy crime in TAMMY, and if you said to yourself “I thought Susan Sarandon filled that role, think again please. Sarandon is such a non-entity in the story, you almost feel sorry she’s even in this movie. I’m not sure I’ve ever found Sarandon especially good at comedy, but she’s a fantastic actor seemingly trapped flailing for attention as a sex-crazed alcoholic, who falls of the wagon on the trip and ends up getting seriously ill (those chronic illness jokes just write themselves, do they not?). The pair suffer through one agonizing stop after another that offer nothing in terms of deepening their characters or the supposedly horrible upbringings they both endured. I’d say that I don’t remember the last time I felt less sympathy or empathy for people in a movie, but that wouldn’t be true because I saw the unbearable IDENTITY THIEF last year.
At one stop on their journey/escape, the ladies meet potential love interests Earl and Bobby, a father and son played by Gary Cole and Mark Duplass, one of the only genuinely decent people in this trainwreck. Earl just wants to get drunk and cheat on his wife with grandmom, but Bobby seems genuinely interested in Tammy’s dilemma and history, and Duplass (SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED, YOU SISITER’S SISTER) infuses his character with far more depth and personality than was likely in the screenplay.
I sat through an entire 90-plus-minute film about Tammy, and aside from having the tendency to overreact to every slight she imagines she’s suffered, I couldn’t tell you the first thing about what makes her tick. There are hints that she’s endured some childhood suffering (often because drunk grandma can get nasty when she drinks), but the details are so sketchy, we’re unable to connect to her. Were her parents (Alison Janney and Dan Aykroyd) mean to her? It doesn’t seem so. If anything, Tammy comes across as someone raised spoiled, who is simply used to having things done for her or handed over after hours of screaming about wanting it. Tammy is an overgrown child most of the time, and I’m not even sure that being treated kindly by someone changes that.
Tammy seems to relax somewhat at their final destination, the home of a lesbian couple (Kathy Bates and Sandra Oh), who happen to be throwing a Fourth of July party, where Sarandon gets loaded and humiliates Tammy once again. The most substantial problem with TAMMY is that it feels like a vehicle for McCarthy, rather than an actual movie with a plot. Everyone else is more or less playing it straight, leaving room for McCarthy to do her schtick without interruption. Even the best physical comic or improv master needs some direction, and Falcone—as strange as it seems—isn’t up to the task.
TAMMY, the film and the character, is loud, grating, sloppy and ill conceived from the first frame. There is an army of talented, proven performers surrounding McCarthy, and only Duplass seems interested in, let along capable of, making this a watchable exercise. Outside of this and IDENTITY THIEF, I remain a McCarthy believer. In supporting parts (such as the upcoming, encouraging-looking ST. VINCENT, starring Bill Murray), she shines. When she’s in the hands of capable, knowledgeable filmmakers (like BRIDESMAIDS’ and THE HEAT’s Paul Feig, who is shooting next year’s SPY with McCarthy right now), she excels. When she surrounds herself with people who are afraid to contradict her instincts to flail at every occasion, we get TAMMY.