With her husband, Ben Falcone, as the director and co-writer, Melissa McCarthy has crafted a vehicle for herself called Tammy, in which she attempts to metamorphose from a slob-clown into a figure of maturity and pathos and romance — in the course of a single film. I hesitate to label the result as bad or good. It’s just … off.
McCarthy’s Tammy is a squalling child-woman who hits a deer on the road when she reaches for a fallen snack, gets the axe at her fast-food job, and then bursts into her house to find her husband (Nat Faxon) wining and dining a neighbor played by Toni Collette. (Did Collette have a family member being held for ransom? Her participation is a head-scratcher.) In a scene staged for maximum humiliation, Tammy packs a suitcase that ruptures and then marches with her arms full of clothes up the street to the house of her mother (Allison Janney), who’s in the process of putting Tammy’s grandma, Pearl (Susan Sarandon), in an old-folks home. With little preamble, Tammy and Pearl jump into Pearl’s car and — whee!! — take off for Niagara Falls, swilling beer and whiskey and heading south instead of north.
The setup is promising, but the casting is … what’s that word again? Off. McCarthy is 43, Janney 52, and Sarandon 66 going on 40. Seriously, Sarandon is more gorgeous than she has been in any film since Bull Durham, a quarter-century ago. She doesn’t begin to compute as a granny who’s one foot from an old-age home, and she’s so serenely assured a comedian that she steals every scene. When Gary Cole, as a sex-crazed oldster, pounced on Pearl, I wished the movie had become their madcap odyssey rather than Tammy’s.
A less generous star and director could have cut the film to keep Sarandon from waltzing away with it. I admire McCarthy for casting her and for wanting to play someone real. As she proved in Bridesmaids and The Heat, she can sling an insult as deftly as anyone in movies. But she’s not much of an actress — not yet. She’s a face-puller, a gross-out machine. Half the time Tammy is like some sort of horny, helium-inflated Lisa Lupner from Saturday Night Live, throwing herself at Mark Duplass (as Cole’s beleaguered son) or robbing a fast-food store with a bag over her head — the film stopping dead so she can do a fumbly slapstick number that goes on too long. In the other half, she’s being “sincere.” She tries to stop her grandmom from drinking too much and is called, for her troubles, a “fat loser.” McCarthy sits there, sadly, as if trying to wonder how a movie star can balance the commercial appetite for watching her use her weight for laughs with her own desire to play someone halfway human.
There are many nice moments in Tammy, most underscored by the good Southern rock and bluegrass soundtrack. Kathy Bates pops in as Leonore, Pearl’s wealthy lesbian cousin (her lover is played by Sandra Oh), and you get a glimpse, I think, of McCarthy’s ideal: an older, not-svelte actress who became a star (and won an Oscar) playing nuts but is now charismatically centered, self-contained — she doesn’t give a shit what you think of how she looks. No, this is not a bad movie. It’s just trying to straddle two different worlds. McCarthy hasn’t yet learned how to look strong while She Squats to Conquer.