What Does Tammy Do for Melissa McCarthy’s Schtick (In Other Words, Her Career)?

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The strangest criticism I’ve heard leveled at Melissa McCarthy is that her comic persona repeats herself, that her shtick is getting old. A comic persona is what most comedians work so hard develop; shtick is what a comic does. If anything, McCarthy’s physical and verbal aggression have more variety than many of her peers: consider the upbeat, individualist looniness of her character in Bridesmaids against the angry, disdainful insults that mask her character’s familial pain in The Heat.

In Tammy, McCarthy follows the Kristen Wiig path and designs a vehicle for herself. She and husband Ben Falcone wrote the screenplay; Falcone also directs and takes a small role as a pompous fast food manager who incites the plot by firing put-upon Tammy (McCarthy). Tammy then arrives home to find her husband (Nat Faxon) cheating on her. In a smart violation of infidelity cliché, she doesn’t catch him in bed with his mistress — he’s just making her a nice dinner. That betrayal seems to hurt, if anything, all the more. Tammy, fed up, hits the road with her alcoholic grandmother (Susan Sarandon), determined to leave town once and for all.

Their journey — ostensibly, casually, and unconvincingly pointed toward Niagara Falls — is the kind of meandering, mission-slipped road trip you might find in an Alexander Payne movie, and Tammy‘s supporting cast happens to come from Payne’s orbit: Kathy Bates (About Schmidt) turns up alongside Sandra Oh (Sideways), and Faxon co-wrote The Descendants. But while McCarthy might be an inspired match with Payne some day, Tammy only manages those superficial resemblances. It more closely recalls, of all things, Identity Thief, her dopiest big hit comedy so far (and the one that established her as a solo box office draw), right down to the inclusion of light criminal activity and vehicular slapstick. As in that movie (and unlike Bridesmaids and The Heat), her character is positioned is kind of dumb, and very desperate; McCarthy’s characters in her movies with Paul Feig may have nursed hidden insecurities, but here she designs comic riffs around her ignorance and personal flailing.

These aren’t infertile grounds for comedy, of course, and the movie generates some incidental laughs — Sarah Baker strikes sparks off McCarthy in a funny bit part as another fast food worker. When it searches for meaning in Tammy’s life, though, the movie gets muddled. One problem with McCarthy and Falcone’s script is the way it introduces Tammy’s character flaws in dialogue, rather than characterization. Her grandmother mentions that she’s a quitter; Tammy herself admits that she was a bad wife. But we only see the silly offshoots of these supposed traits — which is to say, a limp running gag where she knocks stuff over in an impotent huff when things don’t go her way. It feels backward-engineered from some goofy stuff McCarthy did on set. Just as in Identity Thief, the character doesn’t cohere. The movie, then, makes McCarthy look less gifted (and more shtick-dependent) than she actually is.

But then, no one’s character in Tammy makes much sense, starting at the casting level. I understand why the movie might fudge the fact that Susan Sarandon (age 67) would be on the young-ish side to play a mother to McCarthy (age 43), nevermind grandmother; Sarandon is a great actress and who wouldn’t want to work with her? (I don’t fully understand why the part had to be written as a grandmother rather than a mother, other than generic sassiness, but I’m assuming McCarthy and Falcone had their reasons.) It pushes the age discrepancies to distraction level, though, when they wedge in Allison Janney (age 54) as Sarandon’s daughter and McCarthy’s mother. Janney is another great actress, but she has little to do in this movie besides prompt calculations over whether there’s any way that casting could or should work (OK, math break: if McCarthy is playing a decade or so younger, which she can pretty much pass for, then Janney at her real age could be a young parent to her — even though Janney also could pass for younger than her real age. But it still gets tangled up because the movie implies that the grandmother character is around Sarandon’s real late-sixties age, which throws her giving birth to Janney back to the realm of physically possible but troubling at best. Don’t even ask about the age of the seemingly fortyish ice cream man McCarthy and Sarandon are both supposed to have had a comic dalliance with, decades apart). I don’t mention this to harp on actresses’ ages or to nitpick the realism of a comedy — just to point out that the movie lacks a sense of certainty about what and why it is. As with Identity Thief, McCarthy generates plenty of chuckles and pathos. And unlike her best work, the two never really reconcile.

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