Before the opening credits of Ben Falcone’s Tammy close out, the following things happen to Melissa McCarthy’s eponymous lead character, a veritable litany of disaster: she wrecks her car after hitting a deer that bounces across a quiet country road, she gets fired from her fast food job at Topper Jack’s (a burger joint that has signage that looks so much like Jack in the Box that someone surely should have filed a copyright claim by now), she freaks out her jerky boss (played by Falcone), she tears up the Topper Jack’s on her way out (lots of spit is involved), her smoking car finally dies, and she discovers that her husband (Nat Faxon) is having an affair with a neighbor (Toni Collette, remarkably wasted here). (We also, somewhat strangely, learn how much she loves the band The Outfield, though the importance of their song “Your Love,” beyond Tammy’s apparent affection for the jam, is never fully explained.)
Tammy is having a bad day, okay? It’s about to get a lot worse.
Unburdened of all the trappings of her lackluster life, Tammy decides to hit the road and put this one-horse (and likely one-Topper Jack’s) town in her rearview mirror. Too bad about her deer-busted vehicle, though, which is where her salty grandmother Pearl (Susan Sarandon) comes in, kitted out with her own car, cash, and bad luck. Pearl and Tammy aren’t exactly close, so when the pair rapidly comes up with a plan to head to Niagara Falls (the logic behind their destination of choice is more “why not?” than anything else), it’s definitely a bit strange. The news is also hard to take for Tammy’s mother, played by Allison Janney, though nothing is nearly as distracting as the film’s lax attitude towards sensible casting. The family tree at the heart of Tammy is especially harebrained, as Janney is just eleven years older than McCarthy, while Sarandon is only thirteen years old than Janney. Still, Sarandon and McCarthy exhibit a steady chemistry, the kind that nearly makes the casting disparities forgivable (Janney, on the other hand, is given so little to do that it seems strange that such a recognizable actress was cast in the role, age aside).
Once Tammy and Pearl hit the road, Tammy, well, doesn’t actually get rolling. The film meanders and skids around, a road trip film that’s far more interested in waylaid rest stops than in actually and literally moving forward. Still, the majority of Tammy is cut so rapidly, with scenes bouncing between each other with the kind of pace that could induce whiplash if there was any propulsion to be found in the narrative, that it’s hard to settle into any of the characters or any of the situations (often of the wacky variety) they find themselves in. Tammy stalls out, but it never sits still.
Some of the film’s early attempts at hijinks, from Tammy and Pearl’s drunk driving exploits to a backseat makeout involving Pearl and a new gentleman friend, take on a dark cast once the truth of her character is slowly doled out. The whole thing feels weirdly anti-reality, one of those films that can only inspire bewildered audiences to wonder do people actually act like this?, until it takes a sharp left turn and becomes almost too real. Although the revelation that Pearl’s zest for life isn’t as innocent as it initially seems finally gives the film some purpose, its delivery and tone is so haphazard that Tammy remains an inscrutable dramedy with neither enough comedy nor drama to make it feel in any way complete or compelling.
Despite its dramatic trappings, the film is outfitted with a number of large-scale set pieces played up for maximum comedic value – Tammy practices a robbery in the parking lot of the Topper Jack’s while the clanging rhythms of Macklemore blare out, a “tribe” of lesbians give a Viking funeral to a broken down Jet Ski (the victim of a terrible early attempt at wildness), a pair of teens attack Tammy and Pearl in a convenience store parking lot – all of which fail to hit the humorous beats they’re aiming for. Perhaps it’s the darkness that hangs over Tammy that prohibits even sequences that sound good on paper to soar, but the film’s overall unevenness and careening tone impair it from ever feeling either truly funny or truly dramatic.
It certainly doesn’t help that Tammy is a tough character to crack – she’s remarkably immature, inept at just about everything, with a bad attitude to boot. The few positive attributes that McCarthy and Falcone’s script allow her – she sure seems to like animals and she’s respectful to both liquor laws and veterans in equal measure – never add up to a likable or relatable character, and the rest of her outsized personality threatens to turn her into a disagreeable and maddening main character to follow. If nothing else, McCarthy maintains a steady and infectious energy throughout the film, and when Tammy is finally allowed to act more like a human (and not even a totally likable one, but one that at least feels somewhat believable), the film picks up considerably.
The film does possess other small charms, from co-star Mark Duplass (who is basically a human charm factory at this point, he just churns the stuff out), a supporting turn from Kathy Bates (who appears to be the only star who approached her role with a clear idea of her character’s personality and motivations), and a handful of longer sequences that hint at the possibility that there’s something worth rooting for underneath all the wasted weirdness that is Tammy.
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