“You wanna go ride a cow?”
I like Melissa McCarthy and her trademarked hard-edged, scumbag persona in films. She’s often the best part of things that don’t work—Identity Thief—and those that do—Bridesmaids. So I’d love to blame someone else for how tired and frankly unfunny her latest Tammy is despite knowing I can’t. She co-wrote the road trip comedy with her husband Ben Falcone while he also directed. Maybe there was some interference courtesy of Adam McKay and Will Ferrell lending their shingle to the production, but I’d be surprised to learn they added much more than extra cash for the project to get off the ground. It does have its moments and creates a couple decent laughs, but in the end it just feels like the work of an inexperienced crew unsure of how to keep their story smooth and natural.
If you want to simply make a profanity-laced comedy with fat jokes, old jokes, and a slew of awkward situations—all the power to you. In fact, that’s exactly what I expected after watching the teaser trailer of McCarthy’s Tammy robbing a fast food joint of money and pies. The situation is absurd for absurdity sake with dialogue intentionally incongruent with the felony on display. We learn a lot about her character in this brief minute from her dancing during her approach, her self-deprecating physical humor, and her genuine desire to not be too mean despite the act. Show us the descent leading to this point and how she picks herself back up and you have your movie. It probably won’t be great, but adding a sage, surly drunk of a grandmother (Susan Sarandon) could keep it interesting.
And it does—at first. Everything that could happen to Tammy does: a car accident, getting fired from her minimum wage job, and discovering her husband (Nat Faxon) is having an affair with their neighbor (Toni Collette). Some of the humor is mildly effective, some of it laborious (see the despondent deer on the side of the road performing a gag that’s executed again with greater effect at the end). But you can feel it all revving up in the way it gets through the exposition at a quick clip to arrive at the moment where Tammy and Grandma Pearl embark on their journey to Niagara Falls. Sadly, Falcone and McCarthy may have gone too fast because as we start to settle in and think all will be light, fluffy, and uproarious before they throw in the drama.
This is where the inexperience comes in because I don’t think the couple was prepared for how to authentically orchestrate that tonal shift. We understand Pearl is an alcoholic, but we dismiss it as one more detail to earn laughs. It’s funny to watch her and Earl (Gary Cole) go at it like bunny rabbits while his son Bobby (Mark Duplass) and Tammy fill the “responsible adult” roles in their stead. It’s nothing to write home about, but it cutely gives them opportunity for sheepish flirting. Hell, pairing this quartet off by rhyming names shows the filmmakers aren’t taking it too serious themselves. So we let Grandma do her thing and wait for the next day’s shenanigans only to find it’s not all fun and games. Pearl and Tammy have a checkered history with alcohol and we’re suddenly supposed to care.
The bald truth is that I didn’t. Every instance McCarthy and Falcone write to touch our heartstrings rings false. Whether painting alcoholism in a lesson-learning light despite previously mocking it or going to emotional depths chastising Tammy for the selfish, woe-is-me attitude she continuously spews forth—it doesn’t fit. I wished it would because these themes are important and do add something to the story. With a little script doctoring they might even have worked rather than seemed like two separate screenplays cobbled together. A lighter touch was definitely needed and the amount of distractions pared down extensively. Why they randomly decide to keep returning to Tammy’s mom (Allison Janney) and Faxon/Collette is beyond me. They served their purpose early on as catalysts for escape; the rest is just more screen time to waste their considerable talents.
That’s the long and short of it. A good film is hiding beneath the surface of the adequate one onscreen and it’s a shame because the talent involved deserved better. McCarthy and Falcone bit off more than they could chew trying to pack in so many ideas without seeing if they would congeal. Want a fun grandma with money who’s ready to let loose? Check—but let’s add a layer of darkness to show the struggle of disease and also provide an excuse for bad behavior, past and present. Overweight, opinionated, and delusional buffoon who knows Gregg Allman but not Mark Twain? Check, but don’t let her comfort and strength inside her own skin speak for itself when you can add a trite romance inevitably leading to an outsider declaring her beautiful right before someone else attacks.
Throw in a lesbian party with a pyromaniac (Kathy Bates) and her over-the-top bubbly lover (Sandra Oh) who conveniently have the solution to Tammy’s problems in the physical and spiritual world and you get another random detour serving more as a platform for jokes than plot progression. All we see from start to finish is this world of possibility with a suburban family living in either well-to-do middle class (Tammy and her mother) or entrepreneurial comfort (Bates’ cousin Lenore) and yet the titular character is written off as an uncouth, temperamental high school dropout who the filmmakers actually seem to want us to laugh at as an imbecile. Forcing this cartoonish caricature into becoming the remorseful woman she does through cliché and contrivance as Sarandon’s sidekick evolves from comic relief to cautionary tale is simply asking too much.
 Copyright: © 2014 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. Photo Credit: Saeed Adyani Caption: (L-r) SUSAN SARANDON as Pearl and MELISSA McCARTHY as Tammy in New Line Cinema’s comedy “TAMMY,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
 Copyright: © 2014 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. Photo Credit: Michael Tackett Caption: (L-r) SUSAN SARANDON as Pearl and MELISSA McCARTHY as Tammy in New Line Cinema’s comedy “TAMMY,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
 Copyright: © 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Photo Credit: Saeed Adyani Caption: (L-r) SUSAN SARANDON as Pearl and MELISSA McCARTHY as Tammy in New Line Cinema’s comedy “TAMMY,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.