[2 July 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It would be easy to call Tammy a work of subversive genius. It would be rational to try and explain away its lack of laughs and overall condescending contempt for women of all makes and models as part of some screwball cinematic experiment gone wholly if horribly awry. Certainly Melissa McCarthy (our star and co-writer) and her hubby Ben Falcone (co-writer and director) didn’t mean to make a movie so clueless and incompetent that the rising star would suddenly see her considerable commercial cache come crashing back down to Earth?
Or did they? Perhaps this is all part of the plan: take a tired idea (the road movie), jazz it up with some Oscar level acting (Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates) and then bungle both the approach and the delivery. The result is a ridiculous excuse for entertainment that’s neither funny nor fun. But it sure is seditious, huh?
Like being locked in a narrative limbo with no realistic relief in sight, Tammy tries to get away with being bold and brazen. It starts off with a confrontational moment between our poorly set-up heroine (McCarthy, looking like she just woke up from a decade’s dirt nap in a dumpster) and a wounded deer.
Instantly, one’s thoughts flash to a similar gambit in Adam Sandler’s Grown Ups 2, only this time, our woodland creature doesn’t piss all over our highly paid star. Instead, it slinks off across a Midwestern cornfield, alleviating audience anxiety over the animal’s status as well as guilt on the part of our heroine.
Tammy will play this game throughout its overlong 95-minute running time. McCarthy will do something crass, crude, contemptible, or just plain crazy and, moments later, she’s being excused under a number of faux free spirit excuses.
The sad thing is, we know nothing about this woman before we walk into her pseudo-soap opera life. After the accident with the deer, Tammy goes to her job at fast food franchise Topper Jacks (is that supposed to be a joke name?) and is immediately fired for being late, belligerent, and unprofessional.
Granted, this is a minimum wage service position we are talking about, but aside for the obvious reasons for hating such a gig, Tammy doesn’t provide us with any perspective. No, she simply belittles her boss (played by her husband Falcone in an extended cameo), spits on the food, and heads home, only to find her white picket fence existence upended by her husband’s (Nat Faxon) romantic peccadillo with the next door neighbor (Toni Collette).
Do the couple fight it out, giving the adultery a moment to sink in either sarcastically or seriously? Nope. Is the lack of domestic bliss explained? Nope.
Instead, within moments, Tammy is over at her mother’s house (Allison Janney) singing a sob story that Mom has heard dozens of times before. This time, however, Grandma (Sarandon) gets in on the act, providing a wad of cash and her own aging Cadillac as salvation for her sad granddaughter and transport out of this Podunk place.
At first, Tammy is resistant. Then, as if on a dare, she leaps into the vehicle and with an obviously sick and incredibly alcoholic old woman by her side (Sarandon’s fake cackles are uncomfortably realistic), they make a beeline for Niagara Falls. Why? Well, that’s another of this movie’s many unexplained (or poorly motivated) mysteries.
Unless you’re going for the laugh-a-second joke-a-thon of a movie like 22 Jump Street or Airplane! , a character comedy must have at least part of that genre description within its make-up. Otherwise, everything’s pointless.
Again, we know nothing about Tammy here. Her past is a piecemeal collection of common allusions and the occasional single sentence explanation (“You left me. I was mad.”) and yet none of it explains the crappy job, the cheating hubby, or the obviously strained family dynamic.
Nor do we understand what Tammy really wants out of life. Since she has a habit of hitting the bricks only to come back with her tail between her legs, isn’t she as much at fault as those who are wronging her? In all her previous cinematic incarnations, McCarthy gives her characters a meaning and a purpose, yet when she specifically creates one for herself, we get… nothing.
It’s the same with the surrounding cast. Why is Tammy’s hubby doing the subtle shack up (aside from the obvious fact that his spouse is a bile-spewing harpy)? Why is Grandma such a drunk…and whore…and nostalgic for Niagara Falls (the one sentence story about her dad’s love of the place just doesn’t cut it).
Indeed, Tammy is a film with no follow-up questions. Instead of having a real moment when our lead confronts those who she believes wronged her, or figuring out her next step in the world, it’s another F-bomb, some facial mugging, and on to another disconnected sequence.
For example, after they decide to really head to Niagara, Tammy and Granny immediately stop at a lake and rent a jetski. Why? Well, the rationale appears to stem from a need for a comedy montage and a desire to contrive a way to drain the ample bankroll the duo have. A simple straightforward drive would be out of the question.
An extended stopover with Kathy Bates and her fellow lesbians is far more fertile comedy ground, right? Especially a group of women who do little to acknowledge their affinity outside of constantly calling themselves gay. It also fails. From pop culture references that weren’t funny 40 years ago (The Allman Brothers? Boz Scaggs?) to sequences that result in awkward silences, Tammy tries its damndest to defy expectations, thus the idea that its dullness and stupidity were part of some bigger “plan”.
Like a radio signal that requires the right frequency to come in loud and clear, Tammy is twisted a bit too much to the left or right. It doesn’t supply the set-up/punchline we’ve come to expect from a comedy, instead inserting stumbles and non sequiturs in their place. With a similarly skewed sensibility, one could easily see this as an attempt to both bolster Ms. McCarthy’s artistic cred, while trading on the mainstream appeal which allowed such a vanity project in the first place. But considering its the Cineplex, not the arthouse crowd, who will be descending upon theaters in the next few days, such subversion won’t work.
Or maybe, just maybe, Tammy is just plain terrible. After 95 minutes of humorless happenstance, that’s looking more and more like the appropriate response.