At this rate, we’re probably only a couple of movies away from seeing Melissa McCarthy play a feral clump of sweatpants and greasy hair, living under a bridge and scaring small children.
Her characters have been on a downward slide since “Bridesmaids,” in which she always wore pearls and, sink defecation aside, was only a little eccentric. In “Identity Thief,” she portrayed a felonious hot mess with a penchant for punching people in their throats, albeit with an underlying heart of gold. But by the time “The Heat” rolled around last summer, she was playing an unkempt bundle of violence and aggression whose every other utterance was a threat of anatomically impossible bodily harm.
Now, in “Tammy,” she’s an angry slob, dumb as a sack of plungers, who falls down, flies off the hood of a car, crashes a personal watercraft and gets kicked in the face by a deer.
Of all the Melissa McCarthy movies, “Tammy” is by far the Melissa McCarthy-est.
The actress is obviously playing to her perceived strengths. She co-wrote the script with her fellow Groundlings alum husband, Ben Falcone, who makes his directing debut. (Falcone, who’s had small, memorable roles in all her movies, plays her boss in “Tammy.”)
But too often, at least during its first half, “Tammy” feels like a case of been there, done something similar but not quite as over-the-top as that.
Right off the bat, McCarthy’s Tammy totals her beater Toyota Corolla, gets fired from her fast-food job and catches her husband (Nat Faxon) cheating with a neighbor (Toni Collette). Her suitcase even falls apart on her way out the door, leaving Tammy to scoop up her meager belongings before setting off on foot to stay with her mom (Allison Janney), who lives just two doors down.
All Tammy wants is to get out of tiny Murphysboro, Ill. So when her grandmother Pearl (Susan Sarandon) offers the use of her car and a roll of cash for Tammy’s getaway, the unlikely duo hit the road, bound for Niagara Falls.
Fuzzy math aside (there’s only a 24-year age difference between McCarthy and Sarandon, who’s aged for the part), the actresses work well together. And I can’t remember the last time Sarandon had this much fun onscreen.
Once on the road, Pearl drinks too much and admits to having had a six-month fling with Duane Allman. During a stop at a Louisville, Ky., barbecue joint, Pearl hooks up with good ol’ boy Earl (Gary Cole), and the two of them go at it in the backseat of her car as Earl’s son, Bobby (Mark Duplass), and Tammy recoil in horror.
But the movie isn’t “Pearl.” It’s “Tammy.” And an awful lot of it feels familiar.
There isn’t a drawer in which Tammy is the sharpest knife. She thinks Neil Armstrong was a world-class cyclist and can’t believe the price of gas: “Four dollars a gallon? Thanks, Obamacare!”
There’s the now-obligatory dance scene, a la “Identity Thief” and “The Heat.” And there’s a transformation that feels even more forced, albeit more welcome, than the one in “Identity Thief.”
Once “Tammy” settles down and transitions, somewhat abruptly, from raucous road-trip comedy to a Tammy-Bobby romance, it offers McCarthy a beautiful chance to shine.
She’s all over Bobby while Pearl and Earl are flirting, at one point making out with him against his will. Bobby: “I do not want your tongue in my mouth.” Tammy: “Where do you want it, man?” But a makeover for a Fourth of July party softens not just Tammy’s sweatpants-and-Crocs appearance, but her persona as well.
Once you scrub away some of the layers, Tammy is sweet and vulnerable, and it’s nice to see McCarthy get to play something as simple as a smitten woman.
Duplass (“The League”) is in his element as Bobby, who can’t quite explain his attraction to Tammy. And the supporting cast is mostly terrific. Kathy Bates as Tammy’s lesbian aunt is worthy of special praise, as is Sarah Baker as an employee in the restaurant Tammy robs in one of the few big moments that really works. Faxon and Collette are so underutilized, though, you wonder why they were cast.
The second half of the movie seems to be the one McCarthy and Falcone have the most interest in, with the predictable outrageousness feeling like nothing more than a way to get moviegoers in the door for the story they really want to tell.
McCarthy is such a unique and gifted performer, it would be refreshing to see her have the confidence to play a somewhat subdued character that didn’t require a midmovie course correction.
Until then, she’s in danger of succumbing to Chris Farley Syndrome and a career in which she feels obliged to crash through something for a laugh.
Contact Christopher Lawrence at email@example.com or 702-380-4567.