Silver Screen: Tammy **1/2
Melissa McCarthy was a dependable supporting player with a lengthy résumé before her breakout success in Bridesmaids, where she gave a game-changing performance that was partly accountable for the tidal shift in female comedy. She followed that success by being the best part of a pair of decently funny co-headlining gigs in Identity Thief and The Heat, and now finally, three years after her decade-and-a-half-in-the-making overnight success, she’s fronting her own solo project.
The good news is that McCarthy remains as funny as ever. She’s a wonderful physical comedian who is always up to the task of bigger, broader scenes, but one of her greatest abilities is to goose an otherwise dry line with a clever gesture or an unorthodox delivery. She doesn’t just find the laughs, she finds the laughs between the jokes.
That’s a good thing, because she sometimes goes a long while between jokes in Tammy, an interesting but often unfocused movie that brings together elements of a big, bawdy roadtrip flick and a more quiet, character-driven dramedy without ever quite reconciling the two. Frustratingly, it often feels like Tammy could be successful in either genre, just not both at the same time.
Tammy opens with a classic comedy convention: the worst day ever. In this case, our title character, a good-natured buffoon with a hot temper, totals her car, gets fired from her lousy fast-food job, and catches her husband (Nat Faxon) on a date with another woman. In a fury she storms over to her mother’s house— just two doors down— and demands use of someone’s car to get the hell out of town. The only taker is her rowdy, hard-drinking grandma Pearl (Susan Sarandon). The ladies hop into the car with a stash of booze, Pearl’s assorted pills, and a wad of cash.
When Tammy asks Pearl where they should go, the grandmother pauses for a minute before noting that she’d always wanted to go to Niagara Falls. Tammy agrees, seemingly for lack of a better idea, and they set out, albeit with no sense of urgency or direction.
That’s perhaps the movie’s greatest flaw. We don’t really know what Tammy wants. She’s angry and restless, but despite being the title character has no stated ambition or destination. She’s the passenger in her own journey. We can’t help but wonder if she has any nostalgia for her time with her husband, or what changed between the couple we see smiling out of a cheesy photo wearing matching sweaters and the distant pair who argue briefly before he mostly vanishes from the screen. We don’t know anything about him at all, which is a shame, because it’s a waste of Faxon, an interesting screen presence and Oscar-winning writer to boot.
Faxon isn’t the only underused actor. Tammy boasts a stacked cast, but doesn’t offer many reasons for them to be there. Toni Collette has six or seven indistinctive lines as a homewrecker who seems mostly sad and ashamed. Allison Janney establishes a high-strung, overbearing mother character quickly relegated to relaying expository lines about Pearl’s medications. Dan Aykroyd hints at an over-indulgent, loving father who never gets to expound on his paternal relationship beyond his lone scene of picking Tammy up from jail. Sandra Oh mostly stands to the side and listens to other people’s dialogue as the inadvertently mysterious girlfriend of Kathy Bates, one of the few actors (along with Gary Cole as a cantankerous codger) who gets some scenery to chew.
Tammy veers between quiet character moments and bigger, zanier comic setups: She hotdogs on a jetski, drives a car through campground, attempts a robbery. McCarthy excels at both, but the movie is never quite clear if the audience should laugh at Tammy, or with Tammy, or cry for her. Is she a dummy who never heard of Neil Armstrong or does she possess the secret depths hinted at in a nice, touching scene where she and Pearl exchange jailhouse confessions?
Tammy holds special interest for Southern Illinoisans. The director and cowriter is local boy made (very) good Ben Falcone, McCarthy’s husband and frequent on-screen partner. The early scenes are set in Murphysboro, with excursions to the Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri and back down into Kentucky. Beyond mere references (hey, Tammy’s car goes kaput on Route 13!) Falcone nicely captures the slow, genial rhythms of the area. He remains funny onscreen, joining McCarthy for one of the movie’s best scenes as the goofball boss who becomes the target of her ire during a workplace meltdown.
When most comedies don’t work, they’re actively unfunny. That’s not the case for Tammy, which is amusing indeed, but intermittently and unsteadily so. It’s promising, though, that when the movie errs, it errs on the side of ambitious tonal shifts and character focus. We’ll certainly be seeing more of McCarthy, who is an unstoppable force, and hopefully we’ll see further collaboration between her and Falcone. Even more than the movie’s strengths, Tammy’s flaws suggest potential greatness just waiting to be sharpened, refined, and unleashed.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.