“Tammy’s Always Dying” belongs to that peculiarly Canadian school of depressing sad-sack comedies about dysfunctional relationships between generally annoying people whom we’re nonetheless meant to somehow feel warm and fuzzy about. These films frequently debut at the Toronto Film Festival, then are little heard from again beyond the realms of the CBC and Air Canada movie playlists.
Neither better or worse than most of a generally meh subgenre, Amy Jo Johnson’s feature may attract a tad more attention due to top-billed Felicity Huffman, who didn’t do much to capitalize on her “Transamerica” Oscar nom 14 years ago and now sees her first notable big-screen lead in some time coincide with the high-profile college bribery scandal also involving fellow thesp Lori Loughlin. Whether that current notoriety will help or hinder “Tammy’s” prospects, this is the kind of sitcom-ishly contrived take on serious themes (suicide, terminal illness, bad parenting) that is best suited to the small screen.
We first encounter Hamilton resident Tammy (Huffman) as she’s drunkenly tottering atop spike heels over train tracks on a pedestrian bridge, where at each month’s cash-poor end she usually makes gestures toward a suicidal leap. And as usual, she’s talked from the ledge by only child Cathy (Anastasia Phillips), for whom Mom has always been more of an embarrassment and burden than, well, a mother.
Unlike Ma, at least Cathy has a job, albeit slinging drinks in a dive bar alongside apparent sole friend Dougie (Clark Johnson). He’s a paternal older gay man with whom she enjoys weekend getaways to Toronto, where they pretend to be imaginary characters. Her real father is MIA, his identity debatable — one gleans Tammy was none too discriminating. Not that Cathy’s love life is much more laudable, as she still sneaks sex with the now-married-with-kids jerk jock (Aaron Ashmore) who once necessitated her getting an abortion.
Performed as an over-the-top trashy caricature with a broad Canuck accent — Huffman plays a grating character all too gratingly — Tammy has no redeeming qualities. But thesp-turned-helmer Johnson and first-time scenarist Joanne Sarazen lack the courage to deal seriously with issues of substance and psychological abuse, insisting we find this train wreck funny without actually making her so. The downer content is trivialized further by Cathy being fixated on a tabloid TV talk show that makes a specialty of exploiting the victimhood of people like herself, hapless losers trapped in toxic relationships.
Mother and daughter make a stab at improving their dynamic once chain-smoker Tammy learns she has stage 4 cancer. Cathy moves back into Mom’s dilapidated home as caregiver, only to have her trust violated yet again. There’s inevitably going to be a “permanent” estrangement followed by a last-minute reconciliation, as this sort of sourly sentimental exercise requires.
Competently crafted, “Tammy” is too glib to be poignant and too defeatist to be amusing. It’s hard to root much even for the true leading character here, as despite Phillips’ sympathetic presence, Cathy seems so void of any goals or dreams (beyond getting a new car), she’s as droopy as her comic-strip namesake. Johnson rises slightly above the material, but Dougie isn’t given any internal life of his own.
Tammy dismisses them all as “nothing people,” a cruel self-realization that ought to sting. But in truth these people add up to so little because their movie doesn’t give them enough dimensionality even to qualify for pathos. We’re meant to laugh and cry, yet the main emotion their company spurs is impatience.