TAMMY Review: Melissa McCarthy’s Goodwill Bonfire

The actress/writer/producer takes the wheel and comes in not-so-hot.

When Melissa McCarthy’s film career started to ramp up with her scene-stealing turn in 2011’s Bridesmaids, I found myself wondering why she was still headlining a Chuck Lorre sitcom on CBS. She had a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination! She was starring opposite Sandra Bullock in a blockbuster Paul Feig comedy! Surely she didn’t need the sitcom gig.

Then I watched an episode of Mike & Molly. And while it was about what I expected, something about it stood in stark contrast to McCarthy’s film work: she’s a real person on it. She’s a normal, mainstream lead character in a sitcom about a couple’s marriage, home life and careers. And when you watch the fat girl minstrel show that Tammy frequently devolves into, you begin to understand the appeal that playing a normal sitcom wife might have for a talented actress who seems to be pigeonholed by the motion picture industry.

We say “seems to be,” because Tammy is not exactly the result of Hollywood’s oppressive boot on the actress’s neck. McCarthy and her husband Ben Falcone have co-written and co-produced this venture, with Falcone directing. For better or worse, McCarthy is now driving this jet ski, so it becomes a little more complicated when she seems so eager to crash it into the dock for our amusement.

Tammy starts with a few scenes from the stock “bad day for the protagonist” department: Tammy (McCarthy), late to work after hitting a deer with her piece-of-shit car, gets fired from her fast food job (in a fun scene between her and Falcone as her boss). She returns home to find her husband (Nat Faxon) having a strangely tranquil, romantic dinner at their dining room table with a neighbor (Toni Collette, for some reason). A betrayed Tammy storms out. This could be the setup for a female-centric remake of Stripes! But instead, Tammy walks a few doors down the street to her mother’s house, bent on taking mom’s car and hitting the road. Mom (Allison Janney) isn’t having it, but Tammy’s alcoholic Grandma Pearl (Susan Sarandon) is down, with the wheels and money roll to make it happen. (Side note: it’s here that we realize that McCarthy must be playing Tammy as a 30-year-old or possibly even younger, given the chronological impossibility that Susan Sarandon could be Melissa McCarthy’s grandmother, or for that matter that Allison Janney could be her mother. Now, no one gave 30-year-old Dustin Hoffman shit for The Graduate, so I rolled with it here, but something about the delivery and timing of this info was distracting.)

If your film is going to do the “two women on a road trip” thing, Susan Sarandon is, historically, a pretty safe bet for a co-pilot. And Sarandon, tasked with conveying the ups and downs of an alcoholic diabetic off her meds, shines at times, although it’s also here that the film’s seams start showing. Grandma Pearl is alternately charming, wise, mischievous, helpless and mean, and the movie wants you to chalk it up to her various maladies, but something’s off on the script level. There’s a tearful angry exchange about a past incident between Tammy and Pearl, and it might have been a powerful moment had it not erupted completely out of nowhere, with zero context for us to process it. The film wants its “moments” but is unconcerned with tying them together, and without earning those beats the whole thing collapses like a cake missing an ingredient.

More troubling is the underdeveloped lead character arc, an obstacle course McCarthy has designed for herself that’s meant to take Tammy from the repugnant mess you’ve seen dancing in the trailer to a full-fledged sympathetic and, yes, nuanced lead. HBO’s Eastbound & Down struggled with this as well, asking its audience to look deeper into the heart of its cartoonish protagonist to find someone real and identifiable. Danny McBride and crew had both success and failure on this front, but had 29 episodes to explore. With a two-hour ticking clock, Tammy takes a different approach: it simply has its title character become a different person. And it’s not some Cinderella-esque, gradual change from buffoon to lovable lead - at one point in the film, Tammy simply stops being a crass, overbearing laughing stock and is now a charming, smart, funny person with almost no psychological connection to the Tammy from the first act.

That is, with one notable exception: that goddamned parking lot scene. After Pearl and Tammy are locked up for a liquor store mishap, Tammy is released on bail, which Pearl pays, but there’s not enough money for both. Meanwhile, Pearl’s feet have swelled up in jail like a diabetic on a donut shop bender. It’s a dark, genuinely shocking moment, and you start to wonder if all the buffoonery is leading up to something a little more weighty. Tammy, panicked and in tears, becomes desperate to free her ailing grandma, and decides to rob a fast food chain for bail money.

And then she does that slo-mo gangsta dance in the parking lot with a fast food bag on her head.

Even forgiving the narrative shortcuts and unearned character beats that shove the plot through its paces, the parking lot dance scene, coming as it does after a moment of real gravitas, has absolutely no place in the film. I get it; New Line bought the script for Tammy sight unseen, and that moment is the closest thing the film has to a marketing hook. But it's a damaging scene. Take it out, and the robbery might have very well worked against the drama. Absurd comedy and pathos can (and often do) work side by side. Hal Ashby made a career of it, and Paul Feig certainly knows his way around it. McCarthy and Falcone, as storytellers, aren't quite there yet.

In fact, Tammy resists gelling into anything more than a series of situations designed to let a gifted improv comedian interact with other performers, not all of whom are on McCarthy’s level of riffing. So you end up with a lot of scenes that were probably fun to participate in, but that spirit doesn't always make it to the other side of the screen. Ostensibly we’re meant to glean that these episodic interactions help Tammy to grow, but supporting players like Gary Cole, Mark Duplass, Sandra Oh and Kathy Bates have little more to do than bear witness to The Tammy Show. Bates delivers a tough-love speech near the end, telling Tammy to get her shit together, but it comes after Tammy’s sort of crossed over already, and it comes on the heels of a bit of drunken cruelty from Pearl, so by then it feels more like Tammy’s just being dogpiled.

None of this is to suggest you won’t laugh during Tammy. But at some point you might wonder whether you should. McCarthy’s patented line delivery and banter still feels fresh and different, and she can conjure up tears and real empathy with alarming ease; I kept thinking how amazing she'd be in an Alexander Payne film. But Tammy isn't at that level of complexity or confidence, and for every genuine moment, you’re sadly never more than ten minutes away from a scene in which you’re invited to laugh at Tammy falling down (hard), or eating Cheetos, or having the temerity to be sexual. The end result is a feature-length disconnect, a film that wants you to fall in love with its character, but also wants you to cheer as she goes full Stepin Fetchit with the fat jokes.

On a recent Daily Show appearance, Jon Stewart told McCarthy, “(Tammy) is gonna be a huge blockbuster and I'm gonna tell you why: people love Melissa McCarthy.” I agree completely, but Tammy often feels like a film whose makers don't know that to be true. At the very least, it points up the Catch-22 in which McCarthy finds herself - audiences won’t accept her as a three-dimensional character in anything more than a 30-minute sitcom, and the over-the-top caricatures that get her film projects greenlit can’t sustain themselves over a feature-length running time.

Mike & Molly airs Monday nights on CBS.