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‘Tammy’s Always Dying’ Review: Felicity Huffman Family Drama Barely Avoids Big Cliches

Amy Jo Johnson's latest avoids some expected tropes, but falls into other traps that rob it of emotional power.

“Tammy’s Always Dying”

Tammy, the forlorn protagonist of “Tammy’s Always Dying,” can never quite make it a whole month, her government assistance running dry just one or two days before the next check comes in, and she has a tendency to overspend on booze. But she’s figured out a way to make do: On the twenty-ninth day of each month, Tammy toddles off to a high bridge in her small Canadian town and readies to heave herself off of it, only to be rescued by her somewhat more stable adult daughter Catherine. The routine is already an old one by the time Amy Jo Johnson’s intriguing but often half-baked feature directorial debut opens, complete with staggering Tammy (Felicity Huffman) and resigned Catherine (Anastasia Phillips) going about their worn-in roles.

But what if something changed? More to the point: What if Tammy, who makes a mockery of suicidal ideation, was actually dying? One bloody Kleenex later, and Tammy and Catherine are forced to grapple with an unflinching cancer diagnosis. The pair take the news as they usually do — with brittle humor that keeps the film from collapsing into the kind of weepie one might expect from a “cancer drama,” though it’s not enough to save it from awkward narrative choices. “I hate this,” Tammy grumbles while waiting for her oncologist. “Well, you should have thought about that before you smoked for 40 years,” Catherine snaps back.

At just 85 minutes, “Tammy’s Always Dying” is eager to cram two stories into one — the usual cancer drama alongside an unexpected (and far more compelling, if still under-explored) evisceration of the modern entertainment complex — though neither get their full due. It’s not just the end of the month that’s bad for Tammy or Catherine, and if Tammy looks like she’s stumbling from a bad night into a bad day, that’s only because it seems her entire life has been a series of such mishaps and disappointments. Tammy’s makeshift ethos — one part folksy belief in how eggs should be cooked, one part hardened understanding that the majority of the world’s people are “trash” — hasn’t gotten her far, and Catherine seems destined for the same go-nowhere life.

Catherine might seem as if she’s going to follow her mother’s path, but a secret wad of cash hidden in her underwear drawer and her easy nature with others hint that she might just have something greater awaiting her. As Catherine further itches to get away from her toxic mother and smothering small town life (impeccably rendered through real locations and ace production design) she grasps at whatever she can. That includes an ill-advised affair with an old flame to playing make-believe alongside beloved family friend Doug (Clark Johnson), and eventually landing on a far-fetched hope: she’ll share her story with the world, thanks to a talk show that specializes in such tales of woe.

That’s a hell of an idea, but the film takes more than half of its running time to get there, and is already out of gas by the time Johnson plunges into even darker, twistier material. Spurred on by more misdeeds from her mother, Catherine alights for Toronto, eager to share her life story with brazen producer Ilana Wiseman (an underutilized Lauren Holly), who only seems to care about making good TV.

Inevitably, Tammy’s (very bleak diagnosis) will force Catherine to care for her and push Tammy to grow up (though most of her evolution seem steeped in pitch-black anger, not actual change), but “Tammy’s Always Dying” isn’t content with falling into “Terms of Endearment” cliches. It’s a twist that works both for and against the film, adding dimension to a familiar story while also layering on bigger questions it is wholly unable to address.

Despite an uneven script from Joanne Sarazen, Johnson treats her characters with a great degree of empathy, particularly Catherine, who’s further bolstered by a grounded performance from Phillips. Less successful is Huffman’s turn as Tammy, as the actress is unable to find much humanity in the eponymous role. Instead, Huffman plays Tammy as a one-note drunken stereotype, tipsy and silly and leaning all over everything, always yelling “heeeyy!!” when she walks into a new place. In a splashier film, the relentless repulsion that is Tammy might signal an actor’s Oscar ambitions, but here, she’s out of place, over the top and unlikable amidst a raft of more finely tuned performances.

The scattershot nature of the story keeps it moving forward, but allows for little emotional payoff in moments seemingly designed to hammer them home, from a bad twist in the film’s final act to a turning point telegraphed so early on it’s a wonder how long it takes to actually pay off. The film has more success in smaller beats, when it’s not hamstrung by over-the-top performances or obvious drama. It has just enough going for it to hint at the deeper story beneath the surface: a film only about half measures, not the kind that dishes them out on its own.

Grade: C+

“Tammy’s Always Dying” will be available on VOD on Friday, May 1.

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