We haven’t really had a movie star like Melissa McCarthy before. This isn’t merely a carefully worded reference to her physical type, though that’s part of the package; more importantly, she’s a female comic actor with a gift for slapstick, an unimpeachable skill for improvisation, copious charisma, and a little bit of an edge. It’s easy to peg most movie stars these days to an earlier icon, but not McCarthy — the closest I can come up with is Bette Midler, but she couldn’t take a fall like McCarthy can (and, early on at least, Midler invested her persona with a Mae West-esque sexuality that McCarthy has thus far eschewed). We’re in uncharted waters here, is the point, which may be why no one (except Paul Feig, apparently) seems to know exactly how to make use of her on screen. And unfortunately, that seems to go for McCarthy herself, who co-writes (with her director and husband, Ben Falcone), co-produces, and stars in Tammy, which makes its utter blandness all the more befuddling.
The plot, which has been a bit of a mystery thus far: McCarthy plays the title character, a flounderer who begins the story with the kind of everything-goes-wrong day that only happens in the movies. She hits a deer and crashes her car, which makes her late to her fast-food job, which she then loses — which sends her home to find her husband cheating on her. (Not sexually, but in the midst of a dinner that he cooked for a neighbor woman. Tammy: “You never made me dinner, not even once. And it smells really good!”) Tammy grabs her stuff and marches out the door… to her mom’s house, down the block. She announces that she’s getting the hell out of town, but she needs wheels and money, both of which her grandma is willing to provide — if she can come along.
So it’s that old chestnut, the road movie, where scenery is enjoyed and shenanigans are had and lessons are learned. Putting aside the logistical puzzles — primarily, that 43-year-old McCarthy is playing the daughter of 54-year-old Allison Janney and the granddaughter of 67-year-old Susan Sarandon (they start young in that family, I guess?) — the primary issue with McCarthy and Falcone’s screenplay is that it’s so nakedly formulaic. Yet the fact that we’re waiting for the inevitable shots of pathos doesn’t make them land with any less of a thud; the out-of-left-field heart-to-hearts are cliché-ridden (“You were my best friend and you just left me there!”), and Falcone isn’t nimble enough a director to pull off tonal shifts like, say, the pivot from Sarandon’s character disclosing her dire case of diabetes to, mere moments later, McCarthy’s desperately unfunny “gangsta” dance in the fast food parking lot.
Of course, that incongruity wouldn’t matter much if the comic beats were funny (we still talk about Caddyshack in spite of the fact that the entire “plot” quadrant of that movie is a total dud) — or, at the very least, funnier. But there’s a strange flatness to Tammy, a feeling that they got the script to a point of acceptability and assumed improvisation and editing would take care of the rest. The early, funny scene where Tammy loses her job shows that strategy paying off; it’s reminiscent of her great scene in This Is 40, and it pairs her with Falcone, also a skilled and trained improvisational actor. But elsewhere, she flounders — it’s not that there aren’t laughs to be found here, just far fewer than you’d expect from Melissa McCarthy hitting the road with Susan Sarandon (also, big demerits for the lack of even a single, solitary Thelma and Louise in-joke).
The funniest line of a sub-par comedy can be the most instructive thing in it; you can get a glimpse of where they could have gone, and chose not to. In Tammy’s case, it comes in the third act, when Tammy, now a fugitive, has to torch her car to cover her tracks. As she empties a gas can onto the clunker, she fumes, “Four dollars a gallon. Thanks, Obamacare!” It sends the mind reeling, wondering what kind of movie they could’ve come up with had they decided to make Tammy a real comic character — maybe an honest-to-God, lowdown ignoramus, a kind of a female Kenny Powers (Tammy comes from Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s Gary Sanchez Productions, which is also behind Eastbound and Down).
Of course, as we’ve discussed, female comic actors aren’t really allowed the same degree of assholery as their male counterparts, but that still doesn’t explain why McCarthy and Falcone chose to hedge their bets so carefully; she’s built up so much audience goodwill, and has such inherent likability, that she can risk some edginess (as she did in her breakthrough film, Bridesmaids) and audiences will go with her. Instead, Tammy seems a calculated attempt to replicate the success of last year’s tepid Identity Thief, from the road-trip structure to the inevitable reveal of the cleaned/softened-up McCarthy to the teary backstory, trotted out so we feel sorry for our protagonist and thus forgive her transgressions.
Tammy will probably turn out to be a big hit, or at least mildly profitable (thanks to its relatively low budget), and hey, there are far worse things in the world than McCarthy, Janney, Sarandon, Kathy Bates, Sandra Oh, Toni Collette, and Sarah Baker being a big hit. Audiences may well continue to come see McCarthy in disposable, interchangeable vehicles like this one, two, three, or four more times. But eventually, the formula is going to wear itself out, and either she’ll disappear, or she’ll figure out how to properly harness her considerable talent. For now, Tammy is a disappointment, because it asks an energetic, unpredictable performer to play it so calculatingly, frustratingly safe.
Tammy is out today in wide release.