Melissa McCarthy has been struggling to establish the same comic persona for a few films now, and I had hoped that Tammy would be the one where she nailed it.
Identity Thief and The Heat, both from 2013 and co-starring Jason Bateman and Sandra Bullock, respectively, were higher-profile opportunities for McCarthy in the wake of her blisteringly funny supporting role in Bridesmaids. Tammy, though, is all her: she’s the lead, as well as a producer, and she co-wrote the film with husband Ben Falcone, who directs. Whatever it is McCarthy wants to do as a movie star, this was her chance to do it.
In this sense, the early scenes in Tammy are exhilarating. Rather than back off from the sort of aggressive unpleasantness that Identity Thief and The Heat asked of her, McCarthy gives us another foul-mouthed slob, warts and all. After getting fired from her fast-food job for arriving late and looking like a tornado had dyed her hair, Tammy gives one of those cathartic f*#@-you speeches to her control-freak boss. (Her parting warning to a customer eating a chicken sandwich: “My gut fear: it’s mostly d*#@ and beak.”)
This is a character in the mode of early Adam Sandler (Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore) or Jim Carrey (Ace Ventura: Pet Detective). Or, to cite an even earlier comic agent of chaos, Harpo Marx. Each was in-your-face, relentless and downright mean, and Tammy is similar. On a road trip with her grandmother (Susan Sarandon, game but far too young for the part), the pair break into an a cappella duet of an Allman Brothers song, and the comedy comes not from their singing but from the irritated way Tammy keeps berating her grandmother for hitting the wrong note.
Whatever it is McCarthy wants to do as a movie star, this was her chance to do it.
There’s a key difference between McCarthy and the likes of the aforementioned comedians, however. They were unapologetic about their abrasiveness; in fact, they reveled in it. Sure, the plot conventions required them to eventually learn some sort of lesson (well, maybe not Harpo). Yet even during those hackneyed final scenes, you knew Billy Madison and Ace Ventura were smirking underneath. The manic gleam in their eyes could not be dimmed by a “happy ending.”
Not so with McCarthy. Tammy, like McCarthy’s other films, wants that lesson to be real, and learned. Her characters are meant to transform from broad buffoons into actual people, both inside and out (notice there are usually makeover scenes in her movies). And so Tammy includes an awkward subplot with Mark Duplass as a potential love interest, in which McCarthy lowers the volume and begins to sound like someone you might actually encounter in real life. Likewise, she and Sarandon share intermittent moments of family bonding, in which Tammy expresses genuine affection.
This is a laudable instinct; in fact, it’s more ambitious than the formulas employed by Sandler and the like. Yet these softer scenes haven’t played well in any of McCarthy’s movies, Tammy included. It isn’t that she lacks the range – she’s as adept at the broad physical comedy of a hilarious heist scene as she is at the underplayed emotion of the relationship sequences. Instead, it’s that her range is being misused. I believe her as a comic cartoon and I believe her as a flesh-and-blood woman. What I don’t believe is that they’re ever the same person existing in the same film.