‘Tammy:’ Film Review

I wrote a piece for the site a while back in which I blamed improvisational techniques for the sometimes pitiful state of American film comedy.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not seeking to disparage improv in general.  I think improv is, potentially, a tremendous channel for performance art and can definitely be used to enhance both comedy and dramatic works.  One of my favorite TV dramas of all time, the great Friday Night Lights, was highly improvised on set by the actors with the cameras often hidden from the cast’s view.  When it comes to improv, I am not a hater at all.  But, when a film comedy doesn’t really have a script and the actors are asked to just “be funny” on set, it’s usually a disaster waiting to happen.  As the late, great comic genius Harold Ramis said, "Comedy is just another side of drama."  Just because a movie is designed to make you laugh doesn’t mean that the guidelines of good storytelling need not apply.  You still need a compelling story that sustains a feature-length running time.  You still need fleshed-out characters whose fates the audience can be invested in.  Without basic filmmaking staples in place, you wind up with a lot of flailing actors, riffing so desperately you can practically smell the flop sweat.

The new comedy Tammy is the worst-case scenario of this kind of filmmaking.  With virtually no script or discernable story to speak of, the film over relies on its star, Melissa McCarthy, to shoulder the load and to way, way overcompensate for the lack of story.  The result is McCarty working her ass off to be funny, resulting in a lead character that is flatly unfunny and bears no resemblance to an actual human being.  It’s a trainwreck, and it eventually becomes uncomfortable to watch, like sitting in a club and watching a sputtering comic die onstage.  If I weren’t going to write about the movie, I would have left well before it was over.  It’s that bad.

McCarthy stars as the titular character.  When we first meet Tammy Banks, she is just getting fired from her job at a fast food joint called Topper Jack’s.  Tammy returns home from work early to find her husband Greg (Nat Faxon) making dinner for his mistress (Toni Collette, in a role so small it could have easily been filled by Central Casting), and Greg announces he wants a divorce.  This one-two punch sends Tammy into a tailspin, and she hits the road with Pearl, her alcoholic grandmother (Susan Sarandon), who has always dreamed of seeing Niagara Falls.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is all that exists of the plot, and we’ve still got 85 more minutes left.  It’s a road trip movie with no particular place to go and no high stakes for any of the characters.  I’m a big fan of a much better road trip comedy, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and that had a specific destination for the characters and a time limit for getting there.

Movies with a loose plot structure like this often degenerate into a series of barely connected sketches, and sometimes that can work, but Tammy never seems to manage to gather any momentum, which is strange since McCarthy has an extensive sketch comedy background with The Groundlings.  A scene where Tammy holds up a fast food restaurant to get bail money for Pearl is the closest the movie gets to a genuinely funny set piece, but that bit has been played to death in the trailers and commercials.  This is the kind of movie that thinks the height of hilarity is people over 50 having sex.  These jokes usually involve Sarandon, and it’s kind of shocking since she was such a sensual force of female empowerment on screen for such a long time.  Bull Durham’s Annie Savoy (a modern and sexually liberated woman if ever there was one) would never have approved of this sort of tripe.  Gary Cole plays Sarandon’s love interest, and somehow they kept him from being funny.  I’m not even sure how that’s scientifically possible.  Gary Cole is consistent gold, one of our finest comic character actors, and he’s utterly and unforgivably wasted here.  Mark Duplass play’s Tammy’s love interest with the charisma turned down to –11.

If your movie doesn’t have much plot structure to it, then you’re dependent on your characters to rule the day.  The bad news is that Tammy herself is kind of a nightmare.  I am the first person to admit that I often love stories with horrible people as central characters.  Walter White?  Henry Hill?  Ron Burgundy?  Bring them on.  The problem with Tammy as a character is that she’s just an id, a foul-mouthed ball of unmotivated, bad behavior.  There’s never any sort of psychological depth to her; we never find out what makes her tick.  Why does she behave this way?  Why wouldn’t her husband be justified to leave her?  She’s a mess.  With no clearly developed comedic point of view, we’re simply left with McCarthy mugging like a hyperkinetic windup toy, desperately trying to generate laughs.  You can try to blame the screenwriters, but the film’s threadbare script is by McCarthy and her husband Ben Falcone, who also directed.  It’s as if the two of them thought this was all wildly funny, like a gigantic inside joke nobody else is in on but them.  Maybe it’s true that a husband can’t objectively direct his wife.  You don’t have to look much farther than Kate Capshaw in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom for further evidence.

And, I know this is trivial, but I just can’t get past how bizarre the ages of the cast are in relation to the characters they play.  For instance, Melissa McCarthy is 44 years old.  How could Susan Sarandon possibly be her grandmother?  Sarandon is 67, apparently 23 years old when she became a grandmother.  Is that even possible?  Unless she had a daughter at 11, and that daughter gave birth at 12, it’s not bloody likely.  Even weirder, Allison Janney plays Tammy’s mother.  Janney is 54, only ten years older than McCarthy.  There’s no way this holds up.  Why not just do the trendy thing and cast Betty White as the grandmother?   She’s at least the right age.  These are the things you think about when the movie isn’t funny.

I feel bad being this negative, as I am a big fan of Melissa McCarthy.  I think she’s a truly gifted comedienne.  I loved Gilmore Girls back in the day, and I’ve really enjoyed her work in Judd Apatow’s films.  The principal’s office scene in This Is 40 always makes me laugh.  (“I would like to rear up and jackknife my legs and kick you both in the (expletive removed) jaw with my foot bone.”)  She has a movie coming out in the fall with Bill Murray and Naomi Watts called St. Vincent that was produced from a blacklist screenplay, and I’m really looking forward to that. 

It has to be better than Tammy.

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