A well-meaning personal project that never rises above the level of amiable mediocrity, “Tammy” feels like the kind of picture that can happen only when a major talent — here, the unsinkable Melissa McCarthy, who wrote the script with her husband and director, Ben Falcone — has amassed enough clout to try something different. Not that it looks all that different, initially: Playing a disgruntled Midwesterner who impulsively goes on a road trip with her boozy floozy of a grandmother (Susan Sarandon), McCarthy delivers another one of her patented loser-girl comic showcases, all coarse displays of temper, aggression and flailing ineptitude. That the performance and the movie ultimately aspire to something richer — a compassionate look at midlife malaise and cross-generational female bonding — turns out to be more admirable in theory than enjoyable in the execution by the end of this middling misfire.
Still, the fact that the public hasn’t proven terribly discriminating in its embrace of McCarthy’s previous efforts (the lousy “Identity Thief” and the enjoyable “The Heat” both grossed more than $130 million) suggests the Warner Bros. release could still post respectable B.O. numbers, at least during the July 4 holiday frame. After that initial wave, a sense of deflation seems inevitable, thanks to material that one suspects would never have attracted this level of talent — from cast names like Mark Duplass, Allison Janney, Kathy Bates and Toni Collette to producers Will Ferrell and Adam McKay — were it not for the sheer amount of industry goodwill that McCarthy has generated over the years.
Goodwill, alas, is not something the titular Tammy (McCarthy) tends to foster in others. We first encounter this hopelessly disheveled dirty-blonde creature on one of the worst days of her life: After striking a deer on the highway and totaling her car in the process, she gets fired from her job at a local fast-food joint, Topper Jack’s (Falcone plays her soon-to-be-ex-boss), then returns home to find her husband (Nat Faxon) romancing their neighbor (Collette, wasted). Deciding that she’s had it with life in her pathetic small town of Murphysboro, Ill., Tammy packs a bag and hits the road — something she manages only with the help of her similarly fed-up grandmother, Pearl (Sarandon), who agrees to let Tammy drive her Buick and spend her $6,000 or so in cash, but only if she can come along for the ride.
Sporting a frizzy gray wig to hide the fact that she and McCarthy are a mere 24 years apart, Sarandon (whose casting in both this and the mother of all gal-pal road movies, “Thelma & Louise,” is hardly a coincidence) throws herself gamely into the role of the saucy and troubled Pearl. As this bickersome duo head in the general direction of Niagara Falls, Gran’s personal problems threaten to eclipse even Tammy’s: A hopeless alcoholic who’s still as randy as she was in her wild and crazy youth, Pearl wastes no time in seducing a handsome older barfly named Earl (Gary Cole), leaving Tammy to make idle chitchat with Earl’s cutely standoffish son, Bobby (Duplass).
Through a series of hijinks either too complicated or too idiotic to summarize, Pearl somehow winds up behind bars, prompting Tammy to rob the nearest Topper Jack’s in order to post her grandmother’s bail. Naturally, she goes about this in the most dunderheaded fashion imaginable. But just when all seems lost, they’re rescued by Pearl’s sage old friend Lenore (Kathy Bates) and her partner, Susanne (Sandra Oh), who invite them to their riverfront mansion for a lesbian Fourth of July BBQ that provides an almost magical respite from all the shenanigans. It’s during this interlude that Tammy will have to deal with the heavy emotional baggage of her broken relationship with Pearl and figure out how to get her own life back on track.
Falcone and McCarthy clearly have some unusual goals in mind for a mainstream comedy, from their refreshing decision to crowd the film almost entirely with female characters (while giving the men comparatively short shrift) to their focus on laying bare the personal wounds, resentments, mistakes and compromises that have come to define Tammy’s tepid existence. Showing interest in a character’s emotional life while simultaneously subjecting her to comic ridicule requires a uniquely deft touch, and fortunately the film doesn’t go the easy “Identity Thief” route of squeezing McCarthy into the most annoying role imaginable, only to redeem her by way of a sudden physical and moral makeover.
Tammy, to her credit, isn’t quite so neatly defined, and she’s well served by McCarthy’s versatility as a performer, her quicksilver ability to slip from obnoxious and foul-mouthed one minute to tender and open-hearted the next. (Apart from the robbery and a jet-ski misadventure, the gags at the expense of Tammy’s physical clumsiness are kept to a refreshing minimum.) But Falcone’s attempts to spin this generally flat, formulaic comedy into an affecting character drama are frustrated by filmmaking choices that work against a sense of persuasive reality.
The hard-working efforts of both actresses aside, the tetchy grandmother-granddaughter dynamic never fully sparks to emotional life; scene for scene, there’s a weird lack of conviction or concentration at play here. Elsewhere, the (mis)casting decisions are so surreal as to seem almost deliberate at times; when Allison Janney pops up early on as Tammy’s mother (Janney is 11 years older than McCarthy and 13 years younger than Sarandon), the sheer randomness of it — and the sheer number of bizarre wigs being worn at any given time — pulls you out of the picture, never to fully return. There are charming moments here, as when Duplass’ shy Bobby gradually opens himself up to Tammy’s more assertive romantic overtures, but these feel like flickering exceptions to the rule.
Falcone encouraged his cast to improvise heavily during production — a strategy that never pays off, insofar as the guffaw-worthy moments are few and far between here. Shot mainly in and around Wilmington, N.C., the pic capably conjures a vaguely depressive Middle America milieu.