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There is a reason that the trailers for TAMMY show star/co-writer/co-producer Melissa McCarthy at her manic best. Those are, without doubt, the best moments of the film. It’s not that McCarthy isn’t equally adept at a poignant sort of drama, with which TAMMY is, unfortunately, rife. I have no doubt that one day McCarthy will undertake a straight dramatic role, and that it will earn her acclaim and perhaps even a few awards. She has a gift for emotional resonance, be it funny or sad, that is as remarkable as her equally enormous gift for physical humor, from subtle to pratfall. She has not, alas, nor has the script she co-authored with her husband, Ben Falcone, the gift for blending the serious with the silly, as is the case here. Kudos to the pair for wanting to make something of substance. If only they had succeeded.
TAMMY is a road picture pairing McCarthy as the eponymous sad-sack at the lowest point in her life with Susan Sarandon, as her free-spirited, tart-tounged grandmother on an ill-fated trip to Niagra Falls. Tammy has just lost her job, her husband, and her car. Determined to get out of her small town, she has no choice but to hit the road with her Grandma Pearl, who has a car, money, and a hankering to see the falls. Along the way, Grandma gets lucky with a Kentucky farmer, Earl (Gary Cole), reunites with her incendiary cousin Lenore (Kathy Bates), and proves herself to be a mean drunk. Tammy makes a pass at Earl’s son, Bobby (Mark Duplass), robs a fast-food joint, and learns an unsettling truth about the ice-cream man with whom she had a not-so-innocent flirtation.
It’s no THELMA AND LOUISE. The action is episodic, with the ladies bickering and making up, drinking too much, and getting into trouble with the law. If the tone had remained consistent, either an insightful character study of women marginalized by society (overweight, old, gay), or a raucous comedy showcasing McCarthy’s fierce commitment to pushing a character in unexpected directions (yes, I will have apple pie with that robbery and thank you for asking), we would have had a winner. Instead, it flips and flops between its two poles, garnering some genuine belly laughs, some genuinely tender moments, and allowing McCarthy to show her impressive range. It’s more a demo reel than a movie.
What makes McCarthy so funny, and so affecting when she turns serious, is the
fact that her characters are never trying to be funny, or trying to wring our hearts for that matter. McCarthy’s impeccable thespian sense creates characters that look at the world, or a co-star, askance and then shoulder through with an unflinching sense of how that shoulder should be deployed. It is piquantly original, absolutely fearless (what other actress so regularly de-glamorizes herself for effect?), and subversively inspirational for the viewer. She endears by not pandering on any level.
TAMMY is a disappointment for its dithering about what it wants to be, but it does nothing to diminish McCarthy as a brilliant talent.