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'Tammy' and the McCarthy dilemma

By Rich Heldenfels Published: July 2, 2014

On Monday night, I saw "Tammy," the latest film starring Melissa McCarthy and a pet project for her; she co-wrote it with her actor husband Ben Falcone, and Falcone directed. (He also has a small role in the movie.) It's great that McCarthy has generated that much clout in Hollywood thanks to the success of "Bridesmaids," "Identity Thief" and "The Heat." But where "Tammy" has a decent number of big, rude laughs, it is almost a dead end for McCarthy in career terms, a recycling of character and attitude from her previous movies without improving on them.

McCarthy plays the movie's title character, a woman with a lousy job and a worse attitude. It's never made clear how old Tammy is, which is probably a good thing since the movie follows the Hollywood tradition of dubious actor chronologies: there's no calendar that can make sense of McCarthy as the daughter of Allison Janney and the granddaughter of Susan Sarandon. In any case, the movie begins with Tammy losing her job and catching her husband having dinner with another woman; turning to her mother for help, she instead teams up with her grandmother for a road trip to Niagara Falls. Said road trip then provides the movie's comedy, romance and Learning of Valuable Lessons.

And yes, I laughed, more than at "Identity Thief" but far less than at "The Heat" or "Bridesmaids." "Tammy" suffers from the same problem afflicting a lot of comedies, which is that at some point the comedic set pieces have to be held together by  a plot. (Consider in contrast Wes Anderson, whose movies can seem aimless until he begins showing how all the pieces have been carefully put together -- while remaining funny.) 

"Tammy" is very weak on plot and character; Tammy's willful ignorance in the early going is set aside when it no longer suits the narrative, for instance, and the script never gets a real handle on Sarandon's role. Too often a character like Kathy Bates' is called upon to deliver a message about people which behavior has already underlined.

Nor does it help that, in a movie loaded with farce and absurdity, that Sarandon is trying to play it for real. It's not as if she can't do farce; she and McCarthy have been very funny together when Sarandon has guest-starred on "Mike & Molly." The blame has to rest instead on Falcone for not sustaining a tone.

Nor is the acting problem confined to Sarandon. The movie's supporting cast nicludes such strong talents as Sandra Oh, Toni Collette, Nat Faxon  and Gary Cole, yet individually and collectively they have almost nothing to do. Sarah Baker, who was delightful on "Go On" and recently shook up TV with her fat-women speech on "Louie," is largely confined to puzzlement here. At least when Joss Whedon gets a bunch of friends together for a movie, they can end up doing Shakespeare. Again, the actors are not the issue; it's that the script and directing are so focused on McCarthy and, to a lesser extent, Sarandon that everyone else becomes window dressing.

That gets us to a core problem in the movie. It's all about a McCarthy chaacter that we have seen before, and better, in other movies. It also continues the idea of McCarthy as a desexualized creature; even what proves to be Tammy's romance feels odd, with Mark Duplass's character treating Tammy more like a curious social experiment than someone he has passion for.

It's time for her to do something more. She has built up a lot of good will with audiences; the crowd I saw "Tammy" with was ready to have fun with her. But there's a certainty accompanying that good will which works against McCarthy. At a couple of meant-to-be-dramatic moments in the film, laughter came from somewhere in the theater, because those spectators did not expect real seriousness in the film. And it is past time for McCarthy to get serious. Yes,  "Tammy" should make some real money this week, and there is a highlight reel's worth of funny moments. But McCarthy can, and should, do better.

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