Melissa McCarthy is a movie star, which in today’s cinematic climate is the equivalent of a unicorn, a four-leaf clover and a double rainbow all rolled up into one. The m-word didn’t used to be such a rarity. Time was, Tom Cruise, Will Smith, Cameron Diaz, Adam Sandler, even Vince Vaughn could all but guarantee box-office victory by just by putting their name on a film poster, but today’s audiences have abandoned famous flesh-and-blood humans in favour of superheroes, animated toys and Earth-destroying robots. Three years after breaking out in Bridesmaids, McCarthy has become the unlikely exception to this new cinematic order, which is a phenomenal achievement. Even if her movies, so far, are not.
Okay, yes, Bridesmaids was really good – a hilarious script with many excellent performances, none better than McCarthy’s as the puppy-stealing, poop-expelling sister of the groom. Critics lauded her, Oscar nominated her and Toby Emmerich, president of New Line Cinema, told her agent that he wanted to buy “whatever” she was working on. That “whatever” turned out to be Tammy, a road-trip comedy that McCarthy co-wrote with her real-life husband and frequent collaborator Ben Falcone (who also directs). According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, this was the first time in his 20-plus year career that Emmerich signed a project, script unseen. The producer of populist smashes like The Notebook, Wedding Crashers and Sex and the City is seemingly wise to what has turned out to be an alarmingly true premise: Audiences will watch this woman in anything.
And, so far, they have. That Identity Thief, cinematic excrement to put it kindly, managed to squeak its way into the top 20 grossing films of 2013 is a testament to McCarthy’s siren song. The good news: Tammy is a (slightly) better movie than Identity Thief. In it, McCarthy plays the titular 35-year-old woman-child who comes home from getting fired at her fast-food job to find that her husband is having an affair with the prissy neighbour (Toni Collette). Understandably upset, she decides to get out of town. She is also broke and without wheels, so her car-owning, whisky-guzzling granny (Susan Sarandon) is along for the ride.
As a story, Tammy is predictable: odd couple on the open road – high jinks and interpersonal drama ensue. As a script it is uneven and tonally inconsistent – best as a brainless, gross-out comedy, less successful when striving for emotional poignancy. (Grandma’s alcoholism, for example, plays better as a gag than a Hallmark moment). As a star vehicle, though, the movie gives McCarthy the only thing she really needs – screen time.
There are maybe (maybe) two minutes in an hour-and-a-half where she isn’t in the frame, giving her considerable gifts as a physical comedian and improv master plenty of time to work their magic. We see her attempting mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on a deer, attacking her ex-boss at the Flapper Jack’s with cheeseburgers, hamming it up on a jet ski, coming to fisticuffs with a couple of unruly teenagers, and channelling her inner gangsta before knocking off a different Flapper Jack’s. In a scene reminiscent of her classic airplane scene in Bridesmaids (where McCarthy’s Megan is convinced that the air marshal is trying to jump her bones), Tammy trails her love interest to the bathroom, and tries to tongue him before getting rebuffed. The intersection of emotionally clueless and sexually confident is McCarthy’s sweet spot – to see her dancing “provocatively” to the Black Crowes’ southern-rock anthem Hard to Handle is arguably worth the price of admission.
Sarandon is fine as the grandmother, though the character is depressing as often as she is funny (so, too, the experience of watching an acting legend flash her granny boobs for laughs). Other supporting players – Kathy Bates, Allison Janney and especially Toni Collette – don’t get much to chew on. Falcone is perfect in a small role as the pricky Flapper Jack’s boss – the husband-and-wife chemistry hints at how funny the movie could have been had they maybe taken a little longer on the script.
In one scene, Tammy is explaining her magnetism to the opposite sex, telling her grandma that men are on her like flies on you-know-what. Grandma replies that what she means to say is “like bees to honey,” but given McCarthy’s undeniable flare for dung-polishing, the former seems more apt.