She has already steamrolled over such rom-com princesses as Kate Hudson, Jennifer Aniston and Cameron Diaz as cinema’s top-banana funny lady after last year’s top-20 box-office hits “The Heat” and “Identity Thief.” But “Tammy,” her first film as a solo headliner (with an assist from scene-stealer Susan Sarandon) that offers an uncommon opportunity for a comic actress to flex her multi-hyphenate muscles as star, co-writer and co-producer (with hubby Ben Falcone directing), is causing even her most zealous supporters concern.
“Tammy,” a bumpy road-trip adventure with too few belly laughs that reduces the usually large-and-in-charge McCarthy to small-town sad-sack status, earned a 27% approval ranking from critics at Rotten Tomatoes. A number of reviewers regretted having to bash the likable actress for her haphazard efforts. “I hesitate to label the result as bad or good. It’s just … off,” states “New York” magazine’s David Edelstein. Manohla Dargis of “The New York Times” was especially concerned by the amount of jokes made at the expense of the title character’s eating habits, declaring them to be “tedious and borderline desperate,” while adding that, “Ms. McCarthy, and perhaps her collaborators, haven’t yet found a way for her to be completely comfortable in her own skin onscreen.”
An estimated five-day tally of $33 million is McCarthy’s lowest opening among her last four films. Even more telling – and potentially damaging – is that paying audiences were less than thrilled by “Tammy,” resulting in a C-plus grade from CinemaScore (anything under A-minus from opening-weekend attendees is worrisome).
Signature line: “I want to apologize. I’m not even confident on which end that came out of” – McCarthy as Megan, the gaseous wedding participant, right before the infamous sink-pooping incident in 2011’s "Bridesmaids."
Career peaks: As the lovably bubbly Sookie St. James on the WB series “The Gilmore Girls” for seven seasons, this alum of L.A.’s Groundlings improv troupe attracted a fan base that continued to expand with her CBS sitcom “Mike & Molly,” which is about to enter its fifth season. While the 43-year-old Midwest native who was raised on a farm as part of a large Irish-Catholic clan (including model/actress Jenny McCarthy, her cousin) made her film debut in 1999’s “Go,” it wasn’t until she broke out as the brashly outspoken and bawdy Megan in “Bridesmaids” that she became a much sought-after multiplex attraction.
Along with supporting parts in 2012’s “This Is 40” and 2013’s “The Hangover III,” McCarthy teamed with Jason Bateman in 2013’s “Identity Thief,” which failed to impress critics but clicked with moviegoers while grossing $174 million worldwide. In the summer, she found an even better sparring partner in Sandra Bullock in her full-blown prim mode as they paired in “The Heat.” The female spin on a "48 HRS."-style action comedy took in $230 million worldwide – making it last year’s most popular comedy.
Biggest assets: There’s genuineness to McCarthy that can’t be faked. What you see is what you get. And the public likes what it sees – and hears. Not since the ‘80s when Roseanne Barr struck the big time, first as a stand-up and then as the creative force behind her own ground-breaking TV show, has a funny lady shown such potential – and, occasionally, been so divisive. While Barr played off her working-class domestic goddess routine, McCarthy is often upfront about her sexuality even if she isn’t a size 6 and who maintains her distinctively female mystique even if she is mixing it up with the guys. Little wonder that comedy kingpin Judd Apatow recruited her for his clique of cast regulars and Ferrell’s production company Gary Sanchez backed Tammy.
Awards attention: Granted a rare Oscar nomination for a comedic performance as a supporting actress in “Bridesmaids," McCarthy won an Emmy in 2011 and a second nomination in 2012 as a comedy series lead for her work on “Molly & Me.” She earned two Emmy nods for guest-hosting “Saturday Night Live.”
Biggest misfire: Everyone sing: “Tammy, Tammy, Tammy’s the one” – at least in her post-“Bridemaids” career. Otherwise, it might be something called “Just Add Water” (2008), which barely got released. Given that Tammy cost only about $20 million or so to make, however, it might be more of a noble failure and a valuable lesson rather than an outright disaster for a popular performer who is still finding her footing on the big screen.
Biggest problems: McCarthy suffers from the same bad habit that bedevils many comedies these days – an over-reliance on ad libs. While “Bridesmaids’ “ director Paul Feig was able to capitalize on his cast’s improv talents, Falcone too often let his “Tammy” lead drift into humor-free dead zones, killing the timing in such dragged-out sequences as the robbery at a fast-food joint. It also caused McCarthy’s characterization to be maddeningly inconsistent, first throwing public tantrums, then sweetly caring about her wild-child granny.
Gossip fodder: Cranky critic and hater of the overweight, Rex Reed, actually did McCarthy – or, in his words, “the cacophonous, tractor-sized McCarthy” — a great favor in his mean-spirited review of “Identity Thief.” Many media types felt compelled to come to her defense and her own reaction just made her seem even more appealing: “I felt really bad for someone who is swimming in so much hate. I just thought, that’s someone who’s in a really bad spot, and I am in such a happy spot. I laugh my head off every day with my husband and my kids who are mooning me and singing me songs.” She and fellow Groundlings member Falcone, who wed in 2005, have two daughters, ages 7 and 4.
Career advice: McCarthy certainly knows her funny business. And one wrong turn isn’t going to derail her rocket-like trajectory in the film business. But what she needs, however, are collaborators who insist on some discipline, not someone who indulges her whims. She doesn’t have to do Shakespeare to get more serious about her craft – although seeing her do “The Taming of the Shrew” just might be a hoot. But simply continuing to work with and learn from experienced directors and actors will go a long way to keeping McCarthy on track.
What’s next: “When I believe in something, I’m like a dog with a bone,” McCarthy has said. And she has a few potentially juicy ones ahead to make up for any bad taste left behind by “Tammy.” Most exciting is this fall’s “St. Vincent,” in which she plays a single mom who hires her reprobate war-vet neighbor — who happens to be Bill Murray – to look after her 12-year-old son. Other projects in the works: A reunion with Feig and “Bridesmaids” cohort Rose Byrne in the action comedy “Spy”; “Michelle Darnell,” directed by Falcone and based on a Suze Orman-type financial adviser character who was part of McCarthy’s Groundlings repertoire; and a possible sequel to “The Heat.”