Review: Melissa McCarthy’s dream project ‘Tammy’ is a disappointing misfire

For many comedy performers, the ultimate sign of success is being able to create a comedy film that is tailored to their sensibilities, that shows off their strengths as a performer, and that they feel some sense of authorship over, and Melissa McCarthy has more than earned that right. It's not about “Bridesmaids” or “Identity Thief” or any individual performance she's given so far, and it's not about “Mike and Molly” or the fanbase she's built there. It's about a certain degree of inarguability that a performer reaches, and that's where McCarthy is right now.

Along with her husband Ben Falcone, she wrote “Tammy,” a road-trip movie that Falcone directed, and if this is the reward she gets for all the hard work that got her to this point, then I'm glad they both got to have the experience. I just wish they'd made a good movie in the process.

Here's the thing… when the film is called “Tammy,” you've called the shot. If a film's title is just the name of a character, then I am well within my rights to judge the film largely by how that character is treated. Am I going to learn something about them? Are they interesting? Are they hilarious? Are they worth the two hours of my time? In the case of “Tammy,” none of those questions can be answered in the affirmative, and it's really frustrating overall.

Near the end of the film, Tammy points at Niagara Falls and says she's going to barrel over it and she's figured out how to do it just right so she can survive. “You know what, Tammy?” says her grandmother, “if anybody can do it, you can.” Well, that seems like a character I'd watch in a film. If the point is supposed to be that Tammy is this big irrepressible spirit who has never been understood, great. McCarthy can play that. If Tammy's supposed to be this unstoppable force who gets whatever she wants, that's also a character I could see her playing. But the Tammy of the film is so thinly imagined that I can't tell you what defines her. I watched an entire movie about her, and until there was that conversation in the film's closing moments, I couldn't have made that connection.

The biggest problem is that there's no focus. The film opens with Tammy having a bad day. She hits a deer on the highway and destroys her car. She's late to work and she gets fired. She walks in on her husband Greg (Nat Faxon) and their neighbor Missi (Toni Collette). The first indication that this script just doesn't work is how little I know about Greg and their marriage. For any of the comedy to land in the scenes between them or about their marriage, we have to get some sense of it. And when you walk through the door and we've got Nat Faxon and Toni Collette sitting there, ready to play a scene, then for god's sake, let them play a scene. Give them something to do. Instead, they seem stranded. They react to Tammy a bit, and then they're gone.

Tammy decides she wants to head out on the road, something she's threatened to do for years, and this time, her grandmother Pearl (Susan Sarandon) has a wad of cash and a working car and makes it possible for Tammy to actually do it. They hit the road together and…

… well, one might presume that hilarity ensues. That's how I'm sure it would read in treatment form. “Together, Tammy and her grandmother who loves a stiff drink and who can't hold her tongue head out on the road and hilarity ensues.” Only it doesn't. There are events, but they're not especially funny or even particularly interesting. It's like they couldn't decide if they wanted to write something big and broad or something small and honest. There are moments where the cast seems to be trying to do something real, and when you've got people like Sarandon and Mark Duplass and Gary Cole and Kathy Bates and Sandra Oh and Dan Aykroyd and Allison Janney, you've got a cast full of giant monster talents, actors who are great at what they do, and when none of them are able to really pull off a moment in the entire thing, that's not a failure on the part of the cast.

It's a shoddy film in a lot of ways, and again… when I look at who worked on the film, it shouldn't feel this slapdash. I really like Russ Alsobrook as a photographer. I think Michael Andrews has done some very strong work as a composer. I don't get how this thing looks this sloppy, and it has to come back to Falcone as a director. It just doesn't work as a movie, even in the basics of film language. It's hard to point at any one thing that marks this as a miss, but it starts with a sense of life at the edge of the frame. For me, one of the first things I demand of any film is a feeling that there is life captured. Even if the rules of the world I'm looking at don't match the rules of the real world at all, I need to feel like there's something alive happening. When I can picture the crew standing around waiting for someone to call “cut,” I can't engage. I can't even connect on a bare minimum level, and that leaves me enormously frustrated. That's “Tammy” all over.

By the end of the film, they make a few cursory gestures to suggest that Tammy has had a character arc, but it's not remotely supported by what we actually see happening onscreen. Not at all. There's an attempt to soften Tammy visually, and here's where I have to offer maybe my harshest criticism of Falcone as a filmmaker. I get that he's a fan of McCarthy's comic sensibilities, and I like that he's perfectly willing to direct her to be a mess, a big weird comic train crash. But when the movies shifts gears, the movie really misses the mark at capturing that other side of Tammy. That seems bizarre to me. How is it that the director can't find a way to shoot his own wife in a way that makes us see how appealing she can be?

Long story short, I can't imagine Falcone's going to be directing a ton of features after this. Or at least, I can't imagine there will be many that don't involve McCarthy in some way. Their next one, “Michelle Darnell,” sounds like it has a stronger character hook, and maybe Falcone will learn on the job. For now, though, I can't say there's much about this collaboration that I find encouraging.

“Tammy” is a mess, and it feels like a real misstep for this rising star. It opens in theaters everywhere tonight.