I’ve always believed in judging a movie by the content of its character, not the composition of its audience. But when I showed up to see Tammy in theaters last Friday night, I couldn’t help but judge: of the seven or so people in the audience, three were unconscious, was one an infant, another a dog-in-a-purse, leaving just me and my best friend, who I literally paid with cash to come with me. “Some friend,” you might say, “Was she a prostitute?” you might ask, but just watching the movie’s trailer tells you all need to know. Tammy, starring the reliably funny Melissa McCarthy, trades in McCarthy’s well-crafted barbs for Victorian melodrama and Starbucks spirituality. Between alcoholism, homosexuality, and prison, Tammy tries to say so much about today’s big issues – and ends up an inspirational memo quote about “self-confidence.” Poorly spaced, emotionally empty. Complete with comic sans.
All of this is somewhat surprising, given that Tammy seems to have a lot going for it (see: Susan Sarandon, Sarandon, Susan, and Susan: The Sarandon Story) McCarthy, who stole the show in Bridesmaids and saved us from Sandra Bullock in The Heat (almost saved – there was a karaoke scene) co-wrote Tammy with her husband, Ben Falcone. So for viewers like myself who both hadn’t seen the trailer, and refused to read dissenting opinions, expectations were high. Remember when McCarthy took a huge dump in a sink in Bridesmaids? My God, what more could you ask for out of art?
But the protagonist McCarthy creates for Tammy isn’t a typical McCarthy heroine – and that’s actually a huge problem. Tammy, played by McCarthy herself, is an out-of-work fast food employee who loves weak men, crunchy Cheetos (give puffed a chance!), self-destruction. At the start of the movie, she drives her car into a deer, gets fired from work, then comes home to find her beige-Lands-End-polo of a husband Greg (Nat Faxon) boning their neighbor, Missi (Toni Collete). Tammy then slumps her way over to her mom’s house, and in true Cameron Diaz shitty slapstick style, loses half her luggage in the process. It’s uncomfortable to watch, and never once funny. Once home, Tammy cries to Mom (Allison Janney) before agreeing to go on a cross country road trip with her diabetic grandmother, Pearl (Susan Sarandon). (Fact check: Would Susan Sarandon ever really be diabetic? Even as part of a performance? I feel like that woman is one giant leafy locally sourced multigrain).
The problem with the setup to Tammy is the same problem throughout: McCarthy is just so childish, so impulsive, so self-flagellating, that it’s both a struggle to empathize and painful to watch. Great characters are under no obligation to be ‘likeable’ – and frankly, the more dumps you take in a sink, the more we’ll get along. But viewers need to be able to identify, and if they can’t respect the main protagonist, they need to find a different way to connect. Humor can build that bridge, but when Tammy drives into a lake dock cause she’s drunk on a jet ski (womp womp), or holds up a fast food restaurant cause she needs to steal cash (cue the rap music) none of us laugh ‘cause there’s nothing to laugh at (except that dog-in-a-purse. I did sense a wagging tail from across the room, but who knows what club drugs were in that Kate Spade bag).
As the story progresses, Tammy moves carelessly from comedy to dramedy to self-help seminar, losing all of us in the process. Tammy might be an unemployed overweight loser, but her grandma Pearl, we learn, is an unemployed, diabetic drug addict. After Tammy robs a fast food joint, the two run from the law and into the arms of their broad shouldered, matriarchal lesbian friend Lenore (Kathy Bates), who assists them by destroying the evidence aka burning their car. Call it a bias (it is), but I will forgive any storyline that features hardcore butch lesbians in softcore khaki pantsuits committing spontaneous acts of arson. Still, it’s just one scene in this otherwise maudlin, wet diaper of a melodrama, and Bates soon loses her edge. At the movie’s climax, Pearl gets drunk, Tammy gets preachy, and Bates counsels Tammy to “accept Pearl for who she is” and “take charge” in her own life, translation: bone Mark Duplass.
Bates’ advice – which is at the core of the movie’s message – feels shallow and careless, especially in a movie that’s trying to say so much about empowerment. The reason why Tammy doesn’t have love in her life or money in her bank account has nothing to do with her lack of a college education or her cargo capris. Before she loves other people, she first needs to learn how to – I’m sorry, I have to complete this sentence – love herself. Oh please. Think bigger. McCarthy, who is one of the funniest women on the mainstream comedy scene right now, can do better than this teary-eyed, Oxygen Network, Who Moved My Cheese, rom-com mom-com non-com hypoallergenic crap.
Tammy falls into a trap that so many other movies featuring strong skillful comedians fall into: it tries to be something it’s not. Comedians – I’m thinking of Clark Gregg in Trust Me and Ben Stiller in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – often feel that in order to be taken seriously, they need to go ‘serious.’ But underneath all great comedy, I’d like to think, is dissonance, absurdity, a mood disorder. There’s no need for Tammy to throw in a half-baked plot about substance abuse and incarceration for it to achieve excellence. Had McCarthy just stuck with what she’s effortlessly, impeccably good at – words, barbs, dumps in sinks – Tammy would have twice as powerful, losing none of its emotional weight.