Laughs Hard To Come By In Plotless "Tammy"

Any film that features Kathy Bates as a pyromaniacal lesbian already has a substantial head start, the kind of leg up that can’t be casually frittered away. It’s with great aplomb, then, that Melissa McCarthy’s “Tammy” fails so miserably, determined to misuse a stellar cast and waste a primo release date on an idea that’s hardly a wisp of smoke in the creative inferno that is Hollywood’s screenwriting community. It’s a movie with a vacant lot where its story should be, a narrative ghost town inhabited by people who look and sound like movie stars, but couldn’t possibly attach themselves to something so wasteful.

At first glance, “Tammy” is the film Melissa McCarthy has been building to since her breakout, Oscar-nominated performance in 2011’s “Bridesmaids.” Her transition from bit player to lone comedic voice has been slow but definite, her creative team gradually removing competition for laughs like training wheels from a bike. Now centerstage – sharing script duties with her husband, Ben Falcone, who’s also in the director’s chair – it should be McCarthy’s time to shine. Instead, it’s where her game of cinematic Jenga comes crashing down, doing in 100 minutes what Adam Sandler needed a decade to do.

For Melissa McCarthy fans, watching “Tammy” might feel like being dropped into vortex and seeing her work through the eyes of her detractors. It’s the movie equivalent of a bumbling drunk ceaselessly interrupting his or her own stupid ramblings, trying to say something substantive through sheer force. McCarthy isn’t playing a character so much as she’s playing a name, one that might invoke the image of an obtuse, vaguely white-trash fast food employee. When the title character is abruptly fired from her job and discovers that her husband (Nat Faxon) is cheating on her with the neighbor (Toni Collette), she packs up and heads out on a road trip – but not before commandeering her grandmother’s car, and consequently, her bored grandmother, Pearl (Susan Sarandon).

Will Tammy bond with her crotchety, alcoholic grandma? Will she find love in the form of a caring, handsome, younger man (Mark Duplass)? Will there be cheap physical comedy at the expense of McCarthy’s physique? The answer to all of the above is, of course, yes, all served with a heaping helping of pained unfunniness and a side of regret. McCarthy is talented enough to whip up laughs out of thin air, but when she’s tasked with singing the Allmann Brothers’ “Midnight Rider” for five never-ending minutes, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the payoff is a barely a chuckle.

Like many of the film’s gags, it’s a joke that’s warmed over from its star’s previous work. McCarthy singing badly worked in “Identity Thief” because it was brief and featured an ideal straight man, the incomparable Jason Bateman. Here, it’s stretched out to an ungodly length and McCarthy has no one to play off but a deeply detached Sarandon. And when a comedy is so starved for plot, there’s nothing to anchor potential laughter, leaving alleged jokes to evaporate as quickly as they appear. Comedy is at its most impactful when it means something. As a void of storytelling, it should surprise no one that “Tammy” isn’t very funny.

Ultimately, the entire film plays like a 100-minute deleted scene – shaggy, formless, and voraciously inconsequential. It’d be easy to suggest that McCarthy deserves better, but “Tammy” is entirely hers. From inception to final cut, this one’s on Melissa and her husband, and it couldn’t be more disheartening of an experience. Whether or not she requires a cast of strong comedic voices around her – she’s a capable dramatic actress, too – her talents demand better material. The greatest comedy actors of all time couldn’t make “Tammy” work, so Melissa McCarthy the actress probably deserves a pass. But Melissa McCarthy the screenwriter? In the immortal words of Ice Cube – because, why not? – she needs to check herself before she wrecks herself.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: July 2, 2014
Studio: New Line Cinema (Warner Bros.)
Director: Ben Falcone
Screenwriter: Melissa McCarthy, Ben Falcone
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Susan Sarandon, Allison Janney, Gary Cole, Mark Duplass, Toni Collette, Nat Faxon, Dan Aykroyd, Kathy Bates
MPAA Rating: R (for language including sexual references)