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Thursday, July 31, 2014, 1:07 a.m.
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Review

Tammy

By PIERS MARCHANT Special to the Democrat-Gazette

This article was published July 4, 2014 at 2:02 a.m.

Tammy

80 Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Susan Sarandon, Allison Janney, Nat Faxon, Toni Collette, Kathy Bates, Gary Cole, Mark Duplass

Director: Ben Falcone

Rating: R, for language including sexual references

Running time: 96 minutes

Before this film, husband and wife team Ben Falcone and Melissa McCarthy had not professionally written anything together. They are successful comic actors -- McCarthy, especially, after her memorable turn in Bridesmaids and The Heat, rapidly ascending the ranks of female comics who can move the needle for a studio -- but other than writing a handful of Looney Tunes episodes (Falcone) and directing a single episode of a TV show (McCarthy), they had done precious little to indicate they could pull off a feature film.

This doesn't have to be seen as a detriment. Given the painfully formulaic aspect of most big-studio comedies, this sort of inexperience in the hands of two such gifted comic actors could lead to creative rethinking and exciting improvisation within the narrow scope of the comic road-trip trope.

Unfortunately, though, that's not really the case here: The unseasoned nature of their inexperience is instead all too abundantly proffered. Despite a few winning moments, and a yeoman effort from McCarthy, the film is as flimsy as an empty wrapper of Ding Dongs.

When we first meet Tammy -- played with madcap vigor by McCarthy -- she's piled into a junker of a car heading to her fast-food job somewhere in the Midwest, listening to The Outfield at full blast and stuffing her face with Doritos. Her hair is a multihued shag, her sparse eyebrows practically see-through, her red and gold smock already grimy. It appears we're headed toward a comedy involving the Midwestern lower class, who feature prominently during the perp walks on countless past episodes of Cops and many other terrible cable reality shows.

But, in an off-putting whirlwind of screen time, Tammy loses her job, finds her husband (Nat Faxon) cheating with one of her neighbors (Toni Collette), walks next door to the house of her mother (Allison Janney) and storms out just as quickly on a sudden, impromptu road trip with her half-crazy, totally alcoholic grandmother, Pearl (Susan Sarandon), on their misbegotten way to Niagara Falls.

From that unpromising beginning, the pair encounter a series of not terribly interesting plot devices thinly disguised as other characters. There's the Sweet Boy for whom Tammy can pine, the ensemble of Weird-Looking Business Owners and desk clerks she can argue with and, naturally, an inexplicably rich and wise Older Lesbian Couple who have it all figured out for her. For that matter, Pearl -- a former wild child who claims to have had an affair with "one of the Allman brothers," drinks constantly from a bottle in her purse, and yet wears the horrific, bright-colored elderly wear that you would find at the deep discount rack at Marshalls -- is perilously thin herself.

Essentially, the film informs us, Tammy has to find a better focus for her life, one that somehow is meant to involve Bobby (Mark Duplass, slightly uncomfortable in the thankless sweet straight-man role), the good-looking farmer son of Earl (Gary Cole), an older good ol' boy who instantly connects with Pearl after meeting at a BBQ joint somewhere in Ohio.

The film sort of meanders in this way -- for a while, Tammy is on the lam from the law for robbing a fast-food restaurant in order to make the bail to spring Pearl from of the hoosegow -- herky-jerking from one peculiar set piece to another until the women end up at the estate of cousin Lenore (Kathy Bates), a wealthy, fabulously successful gay businesswoman who blows stuff up and dispenses worldly wisdom in equal amounts. Tammy has to learn to take account for herself, you see, and Pearl has to learn to suppress her more chaotic leanings, and all of them have to learn how to forgive each other and bond again. Tammy's journey becomes the usual assortment of self-realizations and hard lessons learned en route to finding herself and unlocking her true potential; yet another American success story.

The only adhesive among all these disparate and thinly drawn elements is McCarthy herself, who produced the film her husband directs. Her effective comic persona involves a combination of her making simultaneous fun of her heavy-set body, and our perception of her weight -- her characters have a way of being inexplicably self-assured and hugely vulnerable -- which has its definite strong points, but it's simply asking too much for her to keep everything humming along when, by dint of the couple's wispy script, she gets so little support from the plethora of name actors and actresses who populate this thing. Because of McCarthy's comfort with her character, Tammy herself is a perfectly fine protagonist, but she can't prop up everyone else in the process of discovering herself.

The result is almost too carefully crafted in places, too restraining of McCarthy's more elaborate comedic flights, and too loose and malformed in others. Sarandon, in particular, even given her tremendous gift as a comic actress can't seem to make much sense of Pearl, who seems to change to suit the whims of any given scene. As much as McCarthy gives it her all, including some surprisingly powerful scenes of Tammy's wellspring of true grief and sadness, she and her husband have stranded her character in a world of characters far less realized than herself.

MovieStyle on 07/04/2014

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