Bridesmaids, Identity Thief, The Heat. For the last three years, Hollywood’s most-anticipated comedy output has become synonymous with Melissa McCarthy’s foul-mouthed, arrogant loser schtick. This summer’s offering, Tammy, penned by McCarthy and husband Ben Falcone – who takes on directorial duties – carries on her commitment to wringing the humour from the ridiculous circumstances of unlucky schlubs.
Whereas Bridesmaids and The Heat rewrote the rules of convention for women in comedy, Tammy prefers to trot a familiar path. Another frumpy Midwesterner, Tammy can’t catch a break. Her rustbucket Corolla is totalled. She’s fired from her job. Her boyfriend is dining the classy waif from next door. This trifecta of blows provide the catalyst for the down-trodden ex-fast food employee to get out of dodge. Penniless, there’s only one escape route: with her sexaholic, alcoholic grandma Pearl (Susan Sarandon), eager to offer up her car and $6,700 on one condition: they visit Niagara Falls.
That’s the extent of the plot – loose and baggy enough to cater to a string of set-ups primed for maximum pratfalls. Tammy’s sole aspiration is getting the two actresses into a car and letting them rip-roar their way cross-country like they’re performing an extended SNL skit.
A hot commodity based on the success of her earlier efforts, McCarthy’s newest romp was sold before the script’s completion; a not-so risky move considering her box-office allure. It’s easy to see why, because really, audiences would pay to hear her rip a telemarketer a new one for 90 minutes. A supporting roster of talent that includes Alison Janney, Toni Collette and Sandra Oh to name but a few, are denied fully-fleshed characters in favour of the leading lady. While it’s easy to proclaim, “Oh what a waste!”, Tammy never suffers, because McCarthy is a profoundly funny performer.
Kitted out with a grungy mullet that David Lee Roth would be proud of and a predilection for Hawaiian garb, her trademark brand of improvisational humour serves up the biggest laughs. A series of one-liners right off the bat between Tammy and her boss (played by Falcone) sets the tone with a gut-busting stream of riotous banter during her firing (one such example occurs as Tammy exits Topper Jack’s with puffed-up bravado, barking to customers that their chicken is “mainly dick and beak.”) The never-ending patter volleyed between McCarthy and Sarandon, as the age-impossible grandma and granddaughter, transforms the two into an irreverent Thelma and Louise, cackling and chugging beers behind the wheel with wild abandon.
Sarandon’s turn will no doubt land the actress a round of acclaim for sending-up the po-faced aging chucks that Hollywood typically reserves for women over fifty. Some of the movie’s softer moments between the two weave the obligatory backstory motivation with a long-running gag involving an ice-cream man, offering the necessary details to Tammy’s pitiful circumstance while not shunning one-liners for either actor.
Tammy charges out of the gate with a constant string of laugh-out-loud moments, reserving its juiciest gags for the outlaw-ish capers that the mismatched pair find themselves in. There’s nary a conversational topic not discussed – due to Pearl’s continued boozing and shagging – or a far-fetched sequence not exhausted for every gag possible. In an age when trailers cram the best bits of a movie into a preview, the Topper Jack’s hold-up scene plays out even better when it finally happens… because for once, the trailer held back. A hysterical riff on a robbery, praise must go to the young fast food employee, Becky, forced at finger-point to bag up cash, and the geriatric worker tasked with divvying up apple pies for the three. This extended sequence showcases McCarthy’s bottomless resource for improvisation. Thankfully, Tammy never betrays who she is for the sake of a cheap joke – a common occurrence in comedy that’s sidestepped by a rigidly-scripted character. The lovable loser is witty but never strays into The Heat’s ruthless hard-nosed Detective Mullins, or Identity Thief’s ballsy Diana.
That’s not to say it avoids the pitfalls of modern comedy. A schmaltzy romantic subplot involving Mark Duplass is shoe-horned into the story and is, at times, a distraction, slowing what little there is of the plot to a halt. By the time you’ve forgotten about their brief initial meeting, he bounds in like a knight in shining plaid, rather implausibly, time and time again as if his scenes were added at the last minute. Falcone takes his foot off the chuckles and amps up the drama when Tammy and Pearl first encounter Duplass and his randy father (a silver fox-style Gary Coleman), encouraging a tedious digression into Tammy’s inevitable epiphany.
Popping up in the film’s last act as Pearl’s cousin, Kathy Bates’ Lenore steps in like an over-60s version of Pulp Fiction’s Wolf (at the centre of the film’s two fiery explosions) to snap Tammy out of her whirlwind of self-doubt. As a wealthy pet-store owner, Bates is the sole member of the supporting cast with a modicum of grit and chewy dialogue – highlighting the lack of substance for Sandra Oh. The antithesis of her venomous Grey’s Anatomy role, as Bates’ dewy lesbian partner Oh is relegated to mere eye candy with barely a sentence of full dialogue. Similarly, Toni Collette’s cameo as the boyfriend-stealing next-door neighbour makes you wonder if her part was trimmed down for the final running time, or her involvement was to simply add another starry name to an already-impressive line up.
For an outing which parades such a wealth of comedy stalwarts, Tammy takes the path of least resistance. While this romantic dramedy sticks rigidly to a tested formula, presumably for a guaranteed box office return, securing a tag-team like McCarthy and Sarandon ensures that the laughs come thick and fast and from some mostly unexpected places.
Tammy delivers on its promise: it’s a very, very funny female-driven comedy that might not break the mould, but will ensure McCarthy’s continued reign as Hollywood’s most-consistent comedian.