Oh, “Tammy.” Can I call you Tammy? I hate to break it to you, but the thrill is gone.
I’d like to say it’s me, not you. But I really think it’s you.
As the latest, loudest, R-rated, plus-size incarnation of Melissa McCarthy’s comic psyche, you had such promise. But the party’s over. The fun has officially left the building.
And let me make this clear — it’s the shtick not the size that’s the problem.
Ben Falcone, McCarthy’s significant other, makes his directing debut with “Tammy” and shows he’s blinded by love. That’s sweet. Warms my heart. You can sense his adoration in every scene, because he doesn’t so much direct as watch and wait until the object of his affection is finished with whatever bit of madness she happens to be into at the moment.
Unfortunately all that love does not translate into an amusing or poignant movie — both of which the couple is going for in their screenplay collaboration. There are some laughs and, at least on screen, more than a few tears. But it doesn’t come together with the kind of satisfying punch a comedy should deliver.
A lot of very good actors have been pulled into this train wreck. But with the exception of Susan Sarandon, who plays Pearl, Tammy’s trash-talking, whiskey guzzling, sex-crazed grandmother, they are mostly wallpaper, part of the set dressing on the stage that’s been created for McCarthy.
It all begins on a very bad day. Tammy’s late for work, driving too fast and sure enough, there’s a deer in the road. Honestly, and it pains me to say this, pay attention to the deer-crash scene. Brutus, or whatever his name is, uses those big, brown, beautiful buck eyes to do the best emoting you will see in the entire film. And I’m not being even slightly sarcastic.
The deer on the grill is just the beginning of a run of bad luck. That bump in the road makes Tammy even later to her job at a typical fast-food joint, where her officious boss Keith (Falcone) summarily fires her. He’ll need some McCarthy-styled humiliation first, a blend of wild gesticulation and verbal barrage that have become the actress’ comic trademark, which is the film’s raison d'être and its fatal flaw.
Long story short: car breaks down on the way home. Tammy finally arrives to find her hubby Greg (Nat Faxon) sharing a romantic dinner with Missi (Toni Collette), a neighbor. More McCarthy-styled humiliation, this time mixed with some seriously hurt feelings, ensues.
Next stop is Mom’s. Allison Janney as Deb administers a little tough love, which sets out the movie’s theme — it’s time for Tammy to grow up, stop acting out, get her life together and stop blaming other people for her problems.
A road trip is required.
As it happens, Pearl wants to break out of a rut too. And with a car and a wad of cash, she has the means to do it. After some insult trading, grandma and granddaughter are on the road to self-empowerment. But make no mistake, “Thelma & Louise” this is not, though Sarandon’s wind-blown curls and infectious smile are a constant reminder.
There will, however, be good men — Earl (Gary Cole) for Pearl and his son Bobby (Mark Duplass) for Tammy — a lesbian Fourth of July party thrown by cousin Lenore (Kathy Bates) and her girlfriend (Sandra Oh), a robbery, a few stints in jail, a lot of whiskey and beer, a lot of dancing and a lot of personal growth. Which is to say, if there’s a point or a punch line, it will be hammered to death.
While Tammy gets plenty of tough love along the way, and not just from Mom, McCarthy is clearly in need of some too.
The sad truth is that we fall out of love with comics almost as fast as we fall in love with them. Few have escaped. Chevy Chase’s pratfalls were funny — for a while. Eddie Murphy’s rap was hysterical — until it wasn’t. Vince Vaughn’s deadpan delivery was special — then not so much. Jack Black’s eye-arching outrage was a hoot — but short-lived. Adam Sandler’s idiocy — well, I’m not sure that was ever very funny, it’s certainly completely lost whatever charm it had.
Like other actors, comics have to mix it up. It’s what Bill Murray did with “Lost in Translation,” earning a well-deserved Oscar nomination in the process. Murphy made an impressive dramatic turn in “Dreamgirls,” Oscar-nominated as well. Robin Williams’ crossover began in earnest with “Good Morning, Vietnam” in 1987. A decade and two more Oscar-nominated performances later, he would win for “Good Will Hunting.” And as much as I’ve loved watching Sandra Bullock falling down over the years in romantic comedies like “Miss Congeniality” and “The Proposal,” it’s been such a treat to see her push into different terrain — from her Oscar-winning insistent mother in “The Blind Side” to her space engineer in “Gravity.”
McCarthy is clearly talented, and there are certainly hints in virtually every role that she’s got the pathos and pain to match the comedy. But comedy is her calling card. Her aggressive, in-your-face, physically fearless style was a refreshing surprise at first. It brought her success long before her breakout in 2011’s “Bridesmaids.”
The problem is she just keeps playing the same card: Opposite Jason Bateman in “Identity Thief,” opposite Bullock in “The Heat,” which they’ll apparently reprise in “The Heat 2" at some point. There is the softer-gentler couples version in the long-running CBS sitcom “Mike & Molly.” The bulk of her future projects appear to be dealing it too.
Shuffling the deck wouldn’t mean walking away from comedy. It just means occasionally giving us, and herself, a break. Whether or not the actress can make the leap to Oscar-level work is an open question, but wouldn’t it be nice if McCarthy tried to answer it?
MPAA rating: R for language including sexual references
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Playing: In general release