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‘Tammy’ Review: Glimmers of Hope and a Handful of Laughs on a Muddled Road Trip

By  · Published on July 1st, 2014

Warner Bros.

Tammy (Melissa McCarthy) is having a pretty bad day. Her car is totaled in a hit and run incident with a deer (the animal hit her then ran), she’s fired from her job at a fast food joint and she comes home early to find her husband is cheating on her with a neighbor. Even worse than catching them in bed together she walks in on them enjoying a lovely meal that he cooked – something he never did for Tammy – so she packs a bag and decides to hit the road.

It’s a difficult decision to commit to when you don’t have a car, so she reluctantly takes her liquor-loving Grandma Pearl (Susan Sarandon) along for the ride in exchange for a vehicle and a wad of cash. The two head to Niagara Falls, but trouble hits almost immediately forcing Tammy to face her history of bad decisions head-on. Laws will be broken, crotches will be grabbed and things will explode.

Tammy is not a great comedy. It’s not even a good one really, and if I had to toss an adjective its way to describe the quality of comedy on display I’d go with “okay.” That’s unfortunate for several reasons, not the least of which being that the film is a collaboration between McCarthy and her husband, Ben Falcone, who directed and co-wrote the film with her. The bigger disappointment though is seeing the unusual and appreciated elements of their script and lead character – and the promise of what could have been – be overshadowed by the film’s muddled and scatter-shot nature.

Against her mother’s (Allison Janney) advice and her own instinct, Tammy takes Pearl on the road, and while much of what follows is played for laughs the relationship between grandmother and granddaughter is quickly revealed as a bumpy one fraught with emotional minefields. The biggest bumps though are the transitions between the laughs and the more serious fare as the film’s tone is all over the place. One minute we’re meant to be laughing along at some drunk driving, and the next we’re supposed to be despondent over a revelation of how cruel alcoholics can be. There’s no discernible flow or structure, no guiding hand, and first-timers Falcone and McCarthy seem incapable of keeping a firm control on their material.

Sarandon’s performance and her character are the clearest example of this. She’s an accomplished actor to be sure, but her broad playing of a drunk conflicts violently with a character we’re meant to see as emotion-worthy.

McCarthy meanwhile plays a variation on a loud and crass persona we’re already familiar with but adds in flashes of real character and affecting acting. As with the rest of the film she moves too freely between the funny and the sad, but she has a better success rate than the movie does in making those halves worthwhile. She’s a talented comedienne in both her delivery and physical antics, and she delivers the entirety of the film’s (admittedly limited) laughs. When they work they’re laugh out loud worthy (the restaurant robbery still has me rolling), but when they don’t seconds of screen-time feel like minutes. The deer scene comes to mind there.

She’s also finds the film’s heart – it’s small and barely beating but it’s there – and manages to convey Tammy’s pain without excess backstory or exposition. It’s still not enough to lift the movie as a whole, but it works to touch on the kinds of issues that could result in a person like this.

Tammy is most decidedly the center of this particular universe, but she’s surrounded by numerous characters who feel under-drawn and too frequently underutilized. That latter feeling is due as much to the casting as the writing thanks to incredibly talented actors being left to flap in the wind with pointless characters who sometimes barely even have dialogue. Janney, Gary Cole and Nat Faxon are given little to do, and I’m not even sure Toni Collette or Sandra Oh say more than a few syllables each. Kathy Bates is a standout though.

For all the messiness that keeps Tammy from moving beyond merely “okay” there are some moments that show promise and deserve a better showcase. Mark Duplass plays an underwritten (surprise!) love interest, and it’s an incredibly refreshing change of pace in a world that inundates us with fat, funny guys coupling with traditionally attractive women. The reverse dynamic is long overdue, because get this, in the real world people of all shapes and sizes are attracted to each other. I know, weird right?

Speaking of sizes, the movie also ends without a single fat joke. The only size-related digs made here aren’t meant to be funny and instead are as cruel as intended. They’re hurtful, and it works. The film also refuses to let Tammy off the hook either emotionally or logistically. Comedies about screw-ups like Tammy too often tend to forget all the damage the characters do in the first two acts as they instead move to a light and fun finale, but while we get a happy ending here it comes with a dose of welcome reality.

Tammy will find favor with McCarthy’s fans, but it probably won’t earn her new ones. Okay movies don’t have a tendency to do that.

The Upside: Some laughs; some heart; some smart ideas on main character; great cast

The Downside: Inconsistent and tonally off; great cast is frequently wasted; drunk driving gags just aren’t funny

On the Side: Falcone and McCarthy already have their follow-up collaboration in pre-production, and it’s titled Michelle Darnell. I sense a pattern developing.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.