Tammy, the new movie starring, produced and cowritten by Melissa McCarthy, could be an artifact from some alternate universe: the creatures there resemble Earthlings but have an entirely different and debased idea of what's funny. Arriving in time for the July 4th weekend, Tammy has the effect of a shoddily manufactured firecracker that weakly goes off in your hands — leaving no permanent damage, just a bitter memory.
That is to say, this one is bad — a little comedy that flops in big ways. It sends Tammy (McCarthy) on a driving trip with her free-spirited, alcoholic grandma (Susan Sarandon) but consistently loses its direction, as if it were guided by a deranged GPS. So does Ben Falcone, the movie's director and cowriter and McCarthy's husband. (The phrase "vanity project" is applicable in every way.) In film schools of the future, professors will teach Tammy as an object lesson in Making Everything Go Wrong.
1. Assemble a group of ridiculously overqualified actors, then give them nothing to do. The on-screen talent includes Sarandon (one Oscar win, five nominations), Kathy Bates (one Oscar win, three nominations), Alison Janney (four Emmys for The West Wing), Toni Collette and Dan Aykroyd (each with an Oscar nomination and an Emmy win) and Sandra Oh (five Emmy noms for Grey's Anatomy), plus Oscar-nominated screenwriter Nat Faxon and Mumblecore indie guru Mark Duplass. McCarthy has her own Oscar nomination — for Best Pooping in a Sink as one of The Bridesmaids — and an Emmy for Mike & Molly. This bunch, you'd guess, could read the fine print in an iPhone contract and make movie poetry of it. Instead, they had to perform the McCarthy-Falcone script, with dumb things to say and preposterously paper-thin characters to inhabit.
2. Leave audiences scratching their heads about your movie family's gene pool. You are asked to believe that McCarthy (short, squat and 43) is the daughter of Janney (a thin, 54-year-old six-footer) and the granddaughter of Sarandon (still gorgeous and fit at 67, even in cast-off clothes and a ratty wig). This goofy casting might have had some comic piquancy if the writers had given Tammy a taller, foxier sister; the role could have been played by the star's first cousin, Jenny McCarthy. But the genetic and chronological anomaly goes unremarked, and we're left with the most implausible three-generation movie trio since the 1988 crime comedy The Family Business, which posited Sean Connery as Dustin Hoffman's father and Matthew Broderick's granddad.
3. Have your cast make stuff up and, however feeble the results, go with it. Variety reports that "Falcone encouraged his cast to improvise heavily during production." Really? Did the director — who, like McCarthy, was a member of the improv troupe The Groundlings — think his script was worse than the floundering he chose for the final cut? Bates has a few strong scenes, improvised or not, as a wise elderly lesbian, but nearly everyone else looks stranded. Sarandon too often is left grinning sheepishly at the camera; or it might be a grimace that says, "Don't blame me." Whatever the mix, Tammy plays like 95 minutes of rejected footage from a real movie.
4. Hint at some social import but fail to deliver on it. This story of a Midwestern woman who's driven to despair when she loses her job, her car and her husband on the same day might have been a parable of social and emotional impoverishment in post-Recession America. There's a fitfully amusing moment when Tammy glares at a can of gasoline and mutters, "Four dollars a gallon. Thanks, Obamacare!" — a clue to how the country's dispossessed have been conditioned to blame the President for every slight they endure.
That'd be fine — except that everyone else in Tammy's family is cheerfully middle-class. She's the only one who's a rude, ignorant mess: incapable of being employed in a fast-food joint, unaware of who Mark Twain is, confusing Neil Armstrong with Lance Armstrong, and driving a car farther into a tight spot, not out of it. That's Tammy's life: a series of stupid moves, triggering a terrible temper. She's just one misstep away from being the crazy lady shouting to no one outside the Walmart.
5. Manufacture instant and inexplicable changes of character. Tammy has been dumped by her husband (Faxon) and her boss (Falcone, in a decent bit) — though, given her bad luck and worse disposition, the wonder is not that she was abandoned and fired but that she'd ever been married or hired. Even a deer she's hit on the road scampers away from her when she tries resuscitating it. She also confesses that she let the local ice-cream truck guy play with her breasts in return for a supply of Klondike bars.
Yet this chronic rejectee somehow retains confidence in her sex appeal — as when she approaches a gentle fellow (Duplass) at a bar to kiss him fat on the mouth. "I do not want your tongue in my mouth," he protests, and she flirtatiously ripostes, "Where'd ya want it, man?" Maybe some atavistic memory of girlhood, when she might have been at all attractive, has kept Tammy coming on to people who push her away. Or is the audience supposed to embrace Tammy, and believe in the redemption afforded her at the movie's end, simply because she's... Melissa McCarthy?
6. Push the Melissa McCarthy character to its egregious extreme. I confess I don't get the character McCarthy has played in Bridesmaids, Identity Thief and The Heat — three movies that earned $460 million at the domestic box office and made her a comedy star. I wouldn't agree with Rex Reed, the Observer critic who earned contumely for calling McCarthy a “cacophonous, tractor-sized… obese and obnoxious… female hippo." Her size doesn't trouble me — no, it's the rapacious abrasiveness of her screen personality that's the real elephant in the room.
Comedies often rely on one character to represent the lure of chaos, of tilting propriety into anarchy. Usually that's a supporting role, which McCarthy filled with (to me) a raspingly unpleasant edge. Tammy has the big steel cojones to put this character front and center, with an unnecessarily distinguished cast of satellites. That McCarthy was in charge of Tammy — that she chose it, indeed created it, as her first top-billed role — indicates that this is the way she wants her film career to go.
And that is the most ominous element in this deplorable project: that somewhere, in that alternate universe where life is ugly and nothing is funny, more Tammys await.