By Drew Taylor | The Playlist July 1, 2014 at 12:45PM
The marketing campaign for "Tammy," the new Melissa McCarthy comedy, has always been somewhat baffling. Instead of a straight-up teaser, Warner Bros. chose to release a snippet of a single scene, where McCarthy's titular character was robbing a greasy fast food restaurant. It was funny enough, but it didn't get you any closer to understanding what the movie was actually about. The fact that this elliptical teaser was the cornerstone of the entire promotional campaign did, however, tell you something: that if anyone understood what the actual movie consisted of, they'd probably stay away in droves. Because "Tammy" is a boring, unfunny road movie that limps along idly, consisting of a string of nonsensical set pieces and halfhearted stabs at character development that come across as off-putting and odd. As soon as our screening ended, a woman behind us sighed and said, "That was uncomfortable." We couldn't agree more.
Tammy, a brassy woman with a Medusa tangle of fried, dyed hair, is having a very bad day: she hits a deer on her way to her crummy job at a fast food joint (her despotic boss is played by McCarthy's husband and "Tammy" director, Ben Falcone), wrecking her equally crummy car. After getting fired from her crummy job, she returns home to find her supposedly loving husband (Nat Faxon) having a romantic dinner with one of their neighbors (Toni Collette, utterly wasted). Broke, alone, and without any way of getting the fuck out of there, Tammy tromps to her parents' house, which is just a few doors down (they try to wring a joke out of this but it feels utterly lazy and contrived).
When she gets to her parents' house, Tammy gets into a huge fight with her mother Deb (played by Allison Janney, who is less than 10 years older than McCarthy) and winds up escaping by sharing an old Cadillac with her loony, alcoholic grandmother Pearl (played by Susan Sarandon, who is less than 10 years older than Janney and less than 25 years older than McCarthy). Tammy just wants to get away. So does her grandmother, who fears withering away and dying either at home or some kind of cob-webby convalescent facility. The two of them hit the road.
Now, it's important to keep in mind that this kind of "worst day ever" conceit is fertile ground for comedic exploration, one in which broader shenanigans can be nimbly juxtaposed against introspective character moments. (Just ask Alexander Payne; he's made a fine career out of this—and most of his projects have, like "Tammy," been road movies.) Unfortunately, "Tammy" has no interest in exploring any of these notions (or if it does, it's too inarticulate to come across), instead it just rambles listlessly from one interchangeably junky set piece to another. Almost from the word go, it's easy to sense that tempo is off; there's no forward momentum, and scenes begin and end without resolution or the accumulation of stakes or tension. The engine of this movie sputters and coughs smoke.
Eventually there are meager attempts at some dramatic heft, mostly involving Pearl's alcoholism and her unwillingness to take her medication (instead insisting on something a little more potent), although all of this feels like lazy attempts at the kind of "grumpy old lady doing naughty things" shtick that even Betty White would find exhausting at this point. Eventually Gary Cole shows up as Pearl's horndog suitor Earl, his beard liberally streaked with grey, with mumblecore kingpin Mark Duplass tagging along as Earl's son, a potential love interest for Tammy. But this plot thread seems misguided and unwieldy, too, with Duplass woefully miscast as a local farmer.
Part of the problem with "Tammy" is that McCarthy is all wound up and has very little to do. You can see that she's firing on all cylinders and enlivened by the opportunity to anchor her own movie. She's willing to go out of her way to do the funniest and most ridiculous stuff imaginable, but she has nothing to bounce off of. Most of the time, Sarandon is her only onscreen costar and you can feel McCarthy's energy dissipate as she searches, wildly, for something else to engage with. Her feistiness has always worked best in small doses; in her breakthrough role in "Bridesmaids," she was so effective because she was doled out judiciously and you were always left wanting more. In "Tammy" there's too much of her, all the time, which results in sequences where she sings almost the entirety of the Allman Brothers' "Midnight Rider," after Sarandon talks about her ill-fated affair with one of the brothers. It's one of a handful of indulgent, WTF-worthy moments that stop the movie dead in its tracks and helps contribute to its unreasonably sluggish 96-minute run time.
"Tammy" was something of a passion project for McCarthy, who also co-wrote the screenplay (with Falcone) and produced it (alongside Will Ferrell and Adam McKay) and not once, in the entirety of the movie, can you understand why. In terms of vanity projects, this has got to be one of the worst, and not just because McCarthy goes out of her way to look as unattractive and glamour-free as possible (her face is a blotchy red blur and her wardrobe can only be described as theme park chic). Tammy, as a character, just isn't very likable, which obviously isn't make-or-break considering that we're currently living in the golden age of the antihero. But she is crass, crude, and dumb (she doesn't know who Mark Twain is) and more than that, unwilling to change, which is an important thing both as a character and for the movie to have any kind of drive. At one point Kathy Bates shows up as Tammy's wealthy lesbian aunt (and gives the movie a much-needed shot of exuberance and class). Instead of learning from what Bates has to say, she shrugs it off, and again McCarthy and Sarandon get involved in a series of cyclical sequences built around bad behavior and wilted old gags.
It's a shame, too, because "Tammy" is the rare female-led studio comedy that isn't exclusively consumed with the lead character chasing after a man (or getting revenge on a man or having their lives otherwise defined by a man). Tammy is a character who seems to be losing on all fronts, but rarely does she (or the movie) take the time to assess just how much of that is her fault. This could have been a charming, ramshackle road movie about two women who reconnect on the road, actualizing all of the wishful fantasies that have occupied their minds but rarely been actualized in their real lives. But this is not what "Tammy" is. "Tammy" is a movie that is painful, pathetic, and more willing to engage in a joke about getting fingered by Boz Scaggs than anything even remotely introspective. In other words: that was uncomfortable. [D]