Tammy is unmistakably a passion project for actress/comedian Melissa McCarthy. Ever since her career-making turn as a hot mess in Bridesmaids, McCarthy has been unfortunately typecasted as an obnoxious slob, so it seems peculiar that a film she personally developed with her first-time writer/director husband Ben Falcone would again have her fill that role. Instead of feeling like more of the same, however, Tammy feels like the culmination of what McCarthy has been building towards since her long line of hot mess characters began in 2011. Structurally, the film plays like a genre exercise in the vein of a standard road trip/buddy comedy that throws generic plot points at the audience as if they’re somehow still surprising despite their over-familiarity. However, Tammy’s strict genre adherence is a merely a front, a platform for the dark, irreverent working class comedy the film really is at heart.
The character Tammy (nearly every character is known by just their first name here: Pearl, Earl, Lenore, Bobby, etc.) is almost instantly familiar to the audience. As we follow her through an especially shitty day in which she loses a car, a job, and a husband, she not only builds on the personality McCarthy has developed since Bridesmaids, but she also establishes herself as a descendant of a long line of have-vs-have-nots comedic characters. Tammy is like a complicated black comedy cocktail with equal parts Strangers With Candy (sharing Jerri Blank’s near feral human-raccoon nature) , Roseanne (with her disinterest in feigning poise), Observe & Report (in her tendency to obscure her crippling depression with outsized bravado), Tommy Boy (in that she destroys everything she touches, but in an endearing way), and Freddy Got Fingered (in both her irreverence & her interaction with dead animals, though both of those factors are thankfully toned down). It’s a hilariously bitter formula that’s just as delightful as it is depressing. Tammy is an eternal fuckup with no discernible promise in her future, but she’s also refreshingly honest & super friendly. Her nature is best understood in a scene where she’s ineptly robbing a fast food restaurant while making friends & plans to hang out with the employees she holds at gunpoint. No one describes Tammy better than she does herself when she says “A little taste of Tammy and you’re going to come clammering back for more. I’m like a Cheeto; you can’t eat just one.” Her character (and in some ways the movie itself) is the personification of junk food; Tammy is cheap, cheesy, and most likely bad for you, but she’s also potently delectable.
In addition to Tammy’s penchant for finding somber humor in poverty, alcoholism, and depression, it’s also subversive in the way it swaps the traditional gender roles in the road trip & buddy comedies it emulates (the same way The To Do List subverted teen sex farces in 2013). Not only is the titular Tammy not the gender you’d expect in a crude, bumbling buffoon protagonist in this genre, she’s also surrounded by a large cast of hilarious women, with the film’s men taking largely a backseat role. The always-welcome Allison Janney & Kathy Bates both have great turns as Tammy’s uptight mother & boisterous lesbian aunt, respectively, but it’s Susan Sarandon that steals the show as Pearl, Tammy’s alcoholic, pill-addicted fuckup drunk of a grandmother. Even though it’s a story we’ve all seen told before, the film’s most heartfelt moments are when Tammy & Pearl drop the self-righteous posturing and bond as two vulnerable people, like in the scene where Pearl reveals that she was in a sexual relationship with “the wrong” Allman Brother and Tammy confesses that she got fingered by Boz Scaggs (but it’s okay, because “it turns out it wasn’t Boz Scaggs”). The film not only allows its women to misbehave in unconventional ways, it also limits the roles its male characters are allowed to fill. The only two male characters of note are played by Gary Cole, who essentially serves as a drunken bimbo for Pearl to conquer, and Mark Duplass, who plays the central character’s way too attractive & emotionally stable love interest, defined only by the depthless selflessness he offers the world. It’s an exact gender reversal of traditional slapstick farces.
Of course, Tammy is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea (or flavor of Cheeto). In fact, Deadspin named it the worst film of last summer, calling it “an ill-conceived nightmare from the beginning, starting with its star’s basic misunderstanding of what makes her an appealing actress in the first place. (It’s not the pratfalls; it’s the energy and warmth behind them).” I think there’s a lot of genuine warmth & some truly bizarre energy behind Tammy’s character that you can miss if you’re not on the movie’s wavelength (despite the character’s self-explanation that she’s like junk food & her love interest’s constant reassurance that she’s lovably honest & “real”). As with most comedies, your enjoyment is ultimately going to boil down to whether or not you find the film funny. Sure, it has its faults: the heart it tries to grow at its clichéd climax is less than compelling; there is an unfortunate featured inclusion of Macklemore on the soundtrack that will surely date the film; it’s relentlessly dumb & gross, etc. However, those faults are inherent to the genre-framework it operates within. For fans of this brand of subversively dark, lowbrow, working-class farces (from the titles mentioned above to other little-loved features like Brothers Solomon & Dirty Work) Tammy has plenty of charm to spare and a refreshing take on the gender roles established by its predecessors. McCarthy may not be playing to the height of her talents here (she’s an impressive dramatic actress when given the chance), but she has constructed a character and a film that are a welcome addition to a long tradition of surprisingly bitter junk food comedies.