In "Tammy," Melissa McCarthy plays an absolute train wreck. In the opening minutes, she rams into a deer, gets fired from her fast-food job, and discovers her husband is cheating on her. Eventually, she launches on a boisterous road trip through the midwest with her freewheeling alcoholic grandmother (Susan Sarandon) that ultimately leads to a clumsy bank robbery and other misadventures. The laughs are mostly uninspired, but with "Tammy," context is everything.
Directed by the actress' husband, Ben Falcone, from a script co-written by the couple, the movie features an untraditional leading woman defying the restrictions of a sexist industry. At her best, McCarthy is an unruly figure of slapstick at odds with the world around her. It mirrors the battle that an actress of her girth faces to make a mainstream movie like this. Its very existence is a triumph, but "Tammy" offers just enough kooky wit to make you wish it was a lot better.
Unsurprisingly, the movie succeeds whenever it veers away from the flimsy plot to let McCarthy transcend its limitations. The material doesn't match her acting strengths but it does play to them, by allowing her to embrace the role of a largely unlikable character. Tammy's anarchic energy and inane self-confidence, like Danny McBride's similarly pathetic egotist on HBO's "Eastbound and Down," works because she doesn't see these qualities in herself.
But in "Tammy," it's not just the actress' behavior or physicality that makes her stand out. The movie is a righteous attempt to put an middle-America antihero devoid of class privilege front and center. Whenever it foregrounds that feat, it hints at a smarter movie. Even when it falters, "Tammy" points in a promising direction for a genre that rarely reaches its potential in the mainstream. If nothing else, it's a conduit to better options.
The Ultimate Underdog
An early image of Tammy post-car crash, caked in grease and blood while speeding her smoking wreck down the road, suggests a kind of gnarly comic poetry that the bland dialogue can't touch. Later, when Tammy goes into gangster mode during a second-act twist, wearing a makeshift mask and prancing about while making thuggish gestures set to "Thrift Shop," the narrative gives way to a hilarious musical riff on the frustrations of the lower class.
When was the last time a star-driven comedy went to such extremes? Jody Hill's boisterous "Observe and Report" may have given us a mentally deranged mall cop who lives with his mother, but at least he has a sense of duty. In "Tammy," the character's recklessness has no immediate outlet.
McCarthy and Falcone's screenplay is less satisfying when it sketches out Tammy's apparent lack of education (mispronouncing "Mark Twain" as "Mark Twan," misunderstanding the meaning of the word "pattern"), while her uneven relationship with her hard-drinking grandmother leads to a series of dead-ends, as does her eventual romance with a gentle man she meets on the road (Mark Duplass).
But there's just enough subtext here to hint at a sad, compassionate portrait of alienation and angst that wouldn't feel entirely out of place in an Alexander Payne movie. (In fact, its cross-generational road trip premise isn't that far from the basic scenario of "Nebraska.") However, despite its good-natured aspects, "Tammy" constantly struggles against its sophomoric ingredients. It's a dumb, broad comedy no matter how much it resists that outcome.
While McCarthy's starring role defies male-dominated American comedy, "Tammy" becomes a mediocre refashioning of a cliche. It tries to shake up a genre that skews toward formula. (See: "Neighbors," yet another pretty funny Seth Rogen movie that's little more than a safe bet.) But, as usual, it's still several steps behind the more inventive comedies being made outside the system.
Where's the Vulgar Fun?
To its credit, "Tammy" manages to transcend the juvenile discussions surrounding "fat humor" that McCarthy's celebrity has sadly provoked in the national conversation. The f-word only comes up once, blurted out by Sarandon in a drunken rage and blended in with a slew of other simple insults. But while "Tammy" is too smart to make fun of its leading lady's size, the humor never finds a good mode of expression.
Yet in "Premature," another sweet-natured comedy with a vulgar edge opening in far fewer theaters this week, a befuddled nerdy teenager (John Karna) ejaculates no less than seven times over the course of the goofy plot, which uses this series of sexual misfires as its main device: Whenever the guy blows his load, his day starts all over again. But writer-director Dan Beers' "'Groundhog Day'-meets-'American Pie'" premise is surprisingly well written and sympathizes with its dopey protagonist, not only because of his weird temporal problem but also because he's a good-natured kid afraid of graduating high school and moving on with his life.
Beers finds a balance between self-conscious, lowbrow comedy and genuine pathos, whereas "Tammy" only hints at dirtier possibilities. Though forward-leaning in parts, it never does anything unique with the material.
Self-Mockery Makes a Difference
David Wain's "They Came Together," out now in theaters and VOD, would never be made as a studio comedy because it rips the genre's conventions to threads. Wain's searing criticism of the romcom formula revolves around an apparent happy couple (Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler) recounting their meet-cute origin story with a recurring self-awareness that manages to indulge in its sweet posturing while parodying its clichés. From the moment that Poehler describes Rudd as "handsome, but in a non-threatening way" and he calls her "the cutesy, klutzy girl that sometimes will drive you a little bit crazy," Wain makes it clear that he knows the material in his crosshairs all too well.
"They Came Together" only gets shrewder from there, tossing in awkward plot lines and absurdist tangents that suggests "The Princess Bride" by way of the Zucker brothers. In one of the more outrageous sequences, as a romantic song plays on the soundtrack, Wain cuts away to show the singer in the studio and the actors out of character paying a visit, while a title card clues us into its eventual availability on iTunes and other platforms. It's a delightful swipe at the commercialization of storytelling that still maintains a gentle, playful dimension. Wain manages to satirize material already done to death without turning preachy.
Despite its loony character, "Tammy" never pushes the material to the same outrageous heights as its lead. The lightweight finale backs away from confronting Tammy's ostracized existence. She gets her happy ending, but it feels like a cheat.
More Nontraditional Antiheroes, Please
While Seth Rogen and company haven't lost their funny, their recurring dominance in American comedy is starting to feel stale. "Tammy" does register as a welcome response. White-guy antics can only inject fresh energy into the genre. But the task has largely fallen to television, where "Orange is the New Black" provides audiences with a diverse range of ethnicities and unglamorous problems in dark comedic packaging.
Of course, "Orange is the New Black" was a calculated risk by a company venturing into new programming terrain, whereas studios have less leeway for experimentation. "Tammy" is as close as they've come to putting a non-traditional protagonist into the format of a mainstream comedy, but there are shrewder attempts taking place outside that arena.
In "Obvious Child," Jenny Slate plays a giggly standup comedienne who ruins her relationship with her onstage monologues and eventually gets an abortion without feeling overrun by guilt. The character casually unleashes scatalogical humor and sex jokes even when she's offstage. Liberated from the constraints of a rigid studio comedy, "Obvious Child" is fearless without overstating its progressive nature. More than an alternative to "Tammy," it provides a better illustration of the casually edgy humor McCarthy implicitly reaches for.
But "Obvious Child" has nothing on Justin Simien's wildly amusing satire "Dear White People," opening in October. Set at an upscale college campus, the writer-director's endearing debut manages to toy with contradictory notions of racial identity in the Obama age. The title refers to the instructive radio show hosted by its main character (Tessa Thompson), a feisty young black woman eager to assault racial stereotypes even as she indulges in some of her own.
The movie confronts its otherness in the marketplace head-on, particularly when Thompson's character is told by her white lover that she should "hold a mirror to your audience rather than dropping cannonballs on their heads." That's a plea that "Tammy" could have taken to heart: It comes close to jarring its audience into experiencing a fresh kind of movie heroine, but ultimately retreats into the same old routine.