by Matt Levine
The appeal of Melissa McCarthy, it seems, is best served in small doses. Her scene-stealing (though frequently obnoxious) performance in Bridesmaids worked because she was never more than a supporting gag—a bombastic ball of fire adding a dose of lunacy to the mostly predictable plot. Unfortunately, that character type has been McCarthy’s crutch (albeit a very lucrative one), as she essentially plays the same role in Identity Thief (2013) and The Heat (2013): the crass, hot-tempered dimwit with a habit of making the most disastrous decisions possible. McCarthy is a talented improviser and can be charismatic, but these roles confine her to a caricature becoming increasingly tiresome.
Director: Ben Falcone
Producers: Will Ferrell, Melissa McCarthy, Adam McKay
Writers: Melissa McCarthy, Ben Falcone
Cinematographer: Russ T. Alsobrook
Editor: Michael L. Sale
Music: Michael Andrews
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates, Allison Janney, Dan Aykroyd, Mark Duplass, Gary Cole, Nat Faxon, Toni Collette, Sandra Oh, Ben Falcone, Sarah Baker, Rich Williams
US Theatrical Release: July 2, 2014
US Distributor: Warner Bros.
Tammy, unfortunately, pushes the formula to its lamest extreme, resulting in both a lifeless comedy and a preposterous drama. In addition to starring, McCarthy also produced the movie and co-wrote the script (with Ben Falcone, McCarthy’s husband, who also directed)—leading optimists to wonder whether she could break out of her clichéd persona with greater creative control. But any expectations of comedic gold are dashed in the first scene, in which Tammy rams into a deer on the road while listening to classic rock on her boombox (the radio in her decrepit Corolla is apparently dead). She tries to perform CPR on the deer by blowing on its snout, at which point the animal knocks her over and sprints away. (Many scenes in Tammy end with things getting knocked over, though unfortunately not with the audience sprinting away.)
Tammy’s abysmal morning continues: she’s fired from her job at a fast-food restaurant (after which she licks all the hamburger buns in retaliation) and returns home to find that her husband (Nat Faxon) is cheating on her with their next-door neighbor (Toni Collette, who says a total of about five words in the entire film). This opening, lazy and inane though it may be, shows how engaging an actress McCarthy can be—her character is an irritating clown but it’s easy to relate to her emotional transparency.
This, however, might be the high point of the movie (and what an unimpressive acme it is). Tammy storms out and walks to her mom’s house, which is right next door—a mildly amusing (if obvious) joke. This is the time, she declares, for her to take that trip to Niagara Falls she’s always wanted—embarking on that sappy journey to “find oneself,” if she can only borrow her mom’s car. When her mom inevitably refuses, dear old grandma provides a narrative catalyst: Tammy’s grandmother (Susan Sarandon) hastily packs a bag, flashes a wad of about $7,000 in cash, and suddenly finds herself on a road trip with her granddaughter. The casting is so illogical it’s surreal: Tammy’s mother is played by Allison Janney, who is 13 years younger than Sarandon and 11 years older than McCarthy (then again, Hollywood has always had the ability to defy the laws of aging).
This whole preamble is shot and edited so lazily that it’s clearly an arbitrary way to get our two main characters in a car together, plot logicality be damned—though it hardly improves when their on-the-road hijinks ensue. Tammy’s grandma Pearl turns out to be a hard-drinking, pill-popping man-eater, reiterating for the one billionth time the comedic stereotype of the naughty, impetuous granny. She hardly boosts Tammy’s depleted self-esteem, especially when she hooks up with a guy at a bar in Louisville (Gary Cole) while Tammy waits behind awkwardly. It’s here that she meets Bobby (Mark Duplass, sleepwalking through the role), a kindly farmer who falls in love with her vivacity. He’s the kind of character so flawless—so understanding, patient, and compassionate—that he’s drained of any personality whatsoever.
Tammy’s personality, meanwhile, is somewhat bipolar: it aspires to be a comedy with dramatic moments, or vice versa (or neither, as the case may be). Tammy’s family is revealed to have a somewhat sordid history, while Tammy and Pearl force each other to grapple with feelings of worthlessness and severe alcoholism, respectively. In theory, it’s admirable that the movie tries to be something more than just a disposable comedy, but the problem is that the characters are so cartoonish, so broad and clichéd, that they can’t possibly resemble real people. There’s rarely a moment when you can forget you’re watching a fairly desperate comedy-drama, which makes its humor strained and its pathos nonexistent.
Eventually Tammy and Pearl make it to the beautiful lakeside home of Pearl’s friend, Lenore (Kathy Bates), a lesbian pyromaniac who dispenses tough-love wisdom to Tammy and immolates a destroyed jet-ski in a Viking ritual (an enjoyably ridiculous scene). And finally, of course, they make it to Niagara Falls, where Tammy magically reunites with Bobby and makes amends with Pearl—since this is the kind of film where any pretense to emotional honesty is eventually ground into heartwarming pap. (That’s not a spoiler, by the way—that’s an inevitability.)
Reading that cast list again is almost mind-boggling—how did this film attract such an ensemble? Allison Janney, Toni Collette, and Mark Duplass are all likeable actors who appear for what seems like seconds, solely to advance the plot. Kathy Bates, Susan Sarandon, and Dan Aykroyd (as Tammy's father) remind you why they should be in more movies (preferably better ones). Whatever drew them to Tammy is absent from the finished product, a belabored star vehicle that’s not only painful to watch—it’s also constraining its star’s potential. As in her last several movies, McCarthy has moments of comedic spark that help to explain why she’s become so popular over the last several years. But that spark can be hard to ignite when everything around it is so trite, belabored, and sloppy. McCarthy will presumably ride this money train for a while, considering how well this character type has fared commercially (she and Falcone already have two more projects lined up). But it’s too bad: somewhere in the fat-and-stupid caricature that McCarthy has reinhabited for four movies straight are the makings of a character I’d be compelled to watch.