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In the tradition of The Jerk and Billy Madison, Melissa McCarthy created Tammy, a comedy about a woman who is stuck somewhere between self-imposed immaturity and adulthood. Since McCarthy co-wrote the screenplay with her husband Ben Falcone, who also directed, there’s the sense that the movie is earnest attempt to launch her into the comedy stratosphere. Tammy is definitely a showcase for her talent as an actor – she has no problem with pratfalls, one-liners, and even a little heart – yet the screenplay suffers from an identity crisis. Tammy changes her personality depending on what the narrative requires from her, to the point where it seems she suffers from an undiagnosed mental illness.

When we first meet Tammy (McCarthy), she’s riding on a highway while a boombox blares from her backseat. She hits a deer by mistake, and it’s unclear where Falcone is going with the close-up of the animal: I didn’t know whether the scene would go for the gross-out or the comedic equivalent of a jump scare. Turns out the temporarily incapacitated deer is an opportunity for Tammy to show her nature: she uncouth but not dim-witted, the sort of person who talks her way through a tough situation instead of out of one. The animal scampers on its way, but Tammy’s car is trashed and she’s late for work at a fast food joint. Her boss (Falcone) fires her, so when she gets home early she finds her husband (Nat Faxon) playing house with her neighbor (Toni Collette). With one indignity after another, Tammy storms to the home of her mother (Allison Janney) and recruits her alcoholic grandmother Pearl (Susan Sarandon) for a road-trip*. Their destination is Niagra Falls, but an escalating crime spree creates a series of obstacles.

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The heart of Tammy is the relationship between her and Pearl. Falcone relies on familiar tropes – the road movie and the mismatched couple, specifically – and freshens by creating specific desires for chaos. Pearl is quick-witted and destructive: she sees advanced age as an opportunity to indulge in bad behavior. In this regard, she acts more like a bad best friend than a grandmother: there’s a scene where she kicks Tammy out of a motel room so she can fuck an older man (Gary Cole) she met at the bar. She’s governed by booze. Tammy, on the other hand, is far more inconsistent. In the scene at the bar, Tammy tries to seduce the older man’s son (Mark Duplass) and nearly embarrasses herself. Twenty minutes later the Duplass character tries to kiss Tammy, and now she says she cannot because she’s married. The script does not even supply the reason that Tammy was drunk at the bar. Instead, McCarthy and Falcone modulate the character based on how they want the audience to react to her. Torn between being sympathetic and unapologetic, Tammy ultimately loses her audience.

Although there’s an overarching problem with McCarthy and Falcone’s hero, there is still plenty that’s funny from moment to moment. The big set-piece happens when Tammy robs a fast food store, and the scene recalls Dog Day Afternoon (she’s not a good criminal) and Chris Farley films (she’s always hungry and only wants to make friends). The employees go for understatement while McCarthy is over-the-top, and the jokes are earnest, clever. There’s a slight shift toward an ensemble comedy once Tammy and Pearl find themselves in the home of Lenore (Kathy Bates), Pearl’s lesbian cousin. She has a big all-lesbian Fourth of July party, as if Falcone and McCarthy want to pass the Bechdel Test with flying colors, and it’s funny because Bates can play a wise, no-nonsense woman with her eyes closed (Sandra Oh is wasted as Lenore’s lover). The party ends with Tammy at a crossroads, and while there’s the familiar teachable moment, Falcone does not make it too saccharine. The only trouble is that when the lecture happens, it’s unclear which iteration of Tammy is meant to learn something.

In the world of comedy nowadays, a movie like Tammy is rare. It’s foul-mouthed without being gross: there is virtually no scatalogical humor, and all the sex jokes are respectful (insofar that they can be). More importantly, its easy-going pace means that Falcone never rushes from one location to another. But while character development is an important part of any comedy dominated by a singular large than life personality – hell, even Bad Santa learned a thing or two – there must be an actual path toward wisdom, self-worth, or whatever values the filmmakers affirm. Tammy runs around in circles, sometimes literally, to the point where we’re disoriented, unsure of our hero’s destination.

* Since these women are playing characters from three different generations, the age differences among them is noteworthy: McCarthy is 43, Janney is 54, and Sarandon is 67. Pearl is meant to be older than her age, I think, while Tammy is meant to be younger.

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