I’m starting to worry about Melissa McCarthy. Her uproarious performance in Bridesmaids won her an Oscar nomination and vaulted her onto the A-list, but the characters she plays now are all more or less like the one she played in that film: brassy, foul-mouthed women who don’t present themselves as attractive and don’t care to. (This last bit is curious, considering that McCarthy is actually rather pretty.) This isn’t the only type of role she can play. If you saw her as a bubbly, sweet-natured chef on TV’s Gilmore Girls, you know that she has range. Her current act is making money, and where too many Hollywood executives want all lead actresses to be built like Keira Knightley, McCarthy surely knows that there aren’t any other 43-year-old women who look like her who are headlining their own movies. Still, in Identity Thief and The Heat, her material consistently failed to live up to her talent, and the same is true for Tammy, even though she co-wrote the script with her director, real-life husband, and sometime co-star Ben Falcone.
She plays the title character, a slovenly woman who gets fired from her fast-food job for her poor work habits and ditched by her husband (Nat Faxon) on the same day. Making her umpteenth attempt to leave her Illinois hometown, Tammy finds herself without either a car or money, so she’s forced to rely on her grandmother Pearl (Susan Sarandon, made up to look older) in exchange for taking the old lady to see Niagara Falls.
The two stars are the best thing here, as Pearl is no wise mentor to her granddaughter. She’s an incorrigible alcoholic who kicks Tammy out of their motel room so she can hook up with a stranger (Gary Cole). Sarandon’s earthy streak chimes well with McCarthy’s profane brand of humor, and the two make a nifty comedy team in such bits as their talk about Grandma’s long-ago romantic tryst with Duane Allman. (“That’s probably the greatest thing anybody in our family has ever done,” says an awestruck Tammy, “going back to caveman times.”) Yet Pearl’s rowdiness isn’t played just for laughs. We get a party scene in which a sloshed Grandma takes the microphone and humiliates her granddaughter. The sequence goes from fun to awful in a matter of seconds, and it feels quite real.
The film wastes too much of its rich comic talent, like Allison Janney and Dan Aykroyd as Tammy’s parents, Toni Collette as the homewrecker, and Mark Duplass as Tammy’s new romantic interest. Even worse, McCarthy and Falcone do too much to make Tammy into a sad sack. We laugh when she mistakes the meaning of “pattern” and has no idea who Mark Twain is, but we can’t imagine how she might have the resources to pull her life together. This is where Bridesmaids struck the right balance, showing its heroine as a loser who might be something more.
The ad-libbing between McCarthy and Sarandon is still good for between five and 10 big laughs, and Kathy Bates turns up gratifyingly as Pearl’s lesbian cousin who finally gets through to Tammy and tells her to sort herself out. Still, I’m ready to see McCarthy do something else. It’d be a shame to see her fall into a rut, even a profitable one. If she ventured outside her comfort zone, she might find a project worthy of her comic genius.
Starring Melissa McCarthy and Susan Sarandon. Directed by Ben Falcone. Written by Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone. Rated R.