Tammy Dir. Ben Falcone

[Warner Bros.; 2014]

Styles: comedy
Others: The Campaign, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, About Schmidt, Talladega Nights

The trailers for Tammy make it look like complete, indefensible garbage, a massive loogie aimed at the lumpen masses. In this context, Melissa McCarthy’s (Bridesmaids) portrayal of the eponymous character appears to be a cruel Hollywood mockery of anyone who dares to be poor, undereducated, and overweight. Were this how it played out in the film, perhaps the most insulting thing would be the studio’s hope that its victims might also be its target audience.

Fortunately, the trailers are somewhat misleading, and Tammy, though decidedly flawed, isn’t even altogether horrible. Despite being advertised as Apatow-damaged dipshit comedy, it’s a surprisingly sensitive film with a tone more akin to Alexander Payne’s comedic work or maybe modest indie-ish comedies like The Cooler or Double Whammy. Its visual aesthetic isn’t out of line with the likes of Pineapple Express, but both its look and its comedy are more muted.

McCarthy’s Tammy is a disgruntled loser, stuck living two houses down from her mother in a sleepy hometown and working at a fast food chain. If you’ve ever lived in a small town in the US, you’ve known a slightly less clever version of Tammy: heavy, slobbish, rude, but still somehow not entirely charmless.

Charmless, no, but luckless: as the film kicks off, Tammy hits a deer with her Corolla on a country road, definitively totaling a car already on its last legs. This makes her late for work, which gets her fired by her too-invested manager (director Ben Falcone, who is also McCarthy’s real-life husband). She thus arrives home early to find her husband cheating on her with one of the neighbors. Tammy vows to leave town to escape her lousy fortune, but being without a working car, she’s forced to team up with her snarky alcoholic grandmother (Susan Sarandon, beaming out enough charm to make up for her uneven comic timing), who agrees to let Tammy use her car if she’ll chauffeur her to Niagara Falls.

It’s a pretty thin premise, even for a road/buddy movie, and this fact weighs heavily on the proceedings. Scenes hopelessly meander; riffs are worn wafer-thin; jokes that should have been cut are left in to rot, even as the film barely clocks over 90 minutes. Suspension of disbelief is challenged at nearly every turn. Still, when it all works, Tammy’s surprisingly complicated and nuanced central relationship hits on a comedic dynamic that’s equal parts Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Thelma & Louise.

Not to say that it’s as fun to watch as either of those. Tammy has the cast and the energy, but it doesn’t have the plot or jokes to make it click. The film also struggles with disconcerting shifts in tone, veering recklessly between doofy gag comedy and muted family drama, breaking up the yuks with glimpses of dark familial history and minor tragedy. This works to lend emotional weight to the characters, but the momentum suffers for it.

This is Falcone’s directorial debut, and it’s he and McCarthy’s first produced screenplay. You can tell: Tammy has the distinct feel of a freshman effort, as it works through its potential stylistic tics and creative strengths, all the while too unaware of how its self-indulgent moments hinder the whole. It offers hope for better things to come, but isn’t really much in itself. Still, there’s a glimmer here. Not unlike its title character, Tammy is rough, obnoxious, and self-indulgent, but they’re both spirited and entertaining enough that you find yourself rooting for them in spite of your better judgment.

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