When you look at the most successful road trip movies, there’s always a clear destination in mind. On one level, it’s all about the physical destination — that elusive goal for which the protagonist will do anything to reach, no matter how many mishaps, challenges or detours they’re forced to take to get there. On a deeper level, road trip movies are about relationships — those bonds we form when we’re forced to spend time with someone we might not otherwise have hung out with. These relationships also carry with them a destination, a place of understanding and respect that the characters find in one another that they may not have seen prior to setting out on their journey. Without one or the other, you might get a brazenly fun ride-along (such as National Lampoon’s Vacation), or an emotionally sensitive story (like Dutch), but without either, you end up with a film like Tammy, a road trip movie without any type of destination.
Melissa McCarthy plays the title character, a loud-mouthed dunce who drives a shabby car to a dead-end job in order to live her hapless life. Within the first ten minutes of the film, Tammy runs the full gamut of a sad-sack country song — her car dies (albeit only after hitting a deer), she loses her job (after being late for the umpteenth time), and catches her husband (Nat Faxon) cooking dinner for his mistress (Toni Collette). If she would have had a dog, I’m sure it would have been a goner. In response to it all, Tammy decides to leave town, but when her mother (Alison Janney) refuses to lend Tammy her car, she is forced to take her grandmother’s car instead — with her impetuous grandmother, Pearl (Susan Sarandon), in tow.
As the two head out-of-town, Pearl suggests the two head for Niagara Falls, but even then, the destination is a moot point. All they really care about is getting out-of-town, leaving the film to meander about without a clear, solid foundation. Not only are the stops they make as random as the events that take place, but Tammy and Pearl get lost in a series of forced character developments and romantic entanglements along the way.
Written by McCarthy and her husband Ben Falcone (who also directed the film), Tammy does try to have an emotional center, and the duo provide a good amount of heart and compassion to balance out the over-the-top situations. However, because of their lack of focus, they try too hard to embed that emotion into the film. At no point did the characters feel at all natural or organic; it was all a set of circumstances stitched together for no other reason than because they were funny when they first thought of them. Even the way Mark Duplass (as Tammy’s love interest, Bobby) gradually falls for Tammy is a little weak, though Duplass and McCarthy do have a charming, likeable chemistry together.
The same sort of forced cleverness occurs in the casting. There are a ton of celebrity cameos filtered throughout the film, but it only feels like they are there to prove how popular McCarthy and Falcone have become in Hollywood circles. Along with Janney, Faxon and Collette, Dan Aykroyd and Sandra Oh pop up in such unsubstantial roles, any number of nameless actors could have done exactly the same thing they do and no one would have been the wiser. The only actors that are given any substance in their supporting roles are Gary Cole as Pearl’s love interest (who’s really only there to set-up McCarthy and Duplass’s love story), and Sarah Baker as a the poor victim of a robbery at the fast-food chain that Tammy once worked. Both actors are funny and nail every line they’re given, even if they’re relegated to second-tier status against McCarthy’s overpowered boisterousness. John Candy’s small cameo in National Lampoon’s Vacation — now there’s an actor who was given a chance to shine alongside the film’s more established star.
It’s in the casting of Sarandon as Pearl where the film truly fails to capture the emotional conflict. She is a fine actress, and I have no doubt she can do comedy with the best of them, but I did not believe for one second that she could be McCarthy’s grandmother. Even though she is sixty-eight years old, her appearance doesn’t match the way McCarthy and Falcone set her up to be. And adding a gray wig doesn’t help — it just makes it seem all the more fake. If they wanted to generate good, natural laughs, they might have thought about casting someone like the incomparable Maggie Smith, or even Judi Dench, either of whom would have given a different type of gravitas to the things that Pearl was asked to do throughout the movie.
Further more, Pearl was written to be Tammy’s equal, someone with just as many issues and just as much brashness. It causes the film to be extremely one-dimensional, as there is nothing for either of the two to absorb, or pass onto, the other. In McCarthy’s last road trip movie, the amusing Identity Thief, McCarthy had a strong foil in Jason Bateman’s wry, straight-man capabilities, which allowed McCarthy and Bateman to bounce their differing styles off of each other in a well-crafted tennis match of opposites attract. In Tammy, Sarandon does everything she can to one-up McCarthy for laughs, so the bigger each of them goes, the more inauthentic it all becomes. If Sarandon (and McCarthy, as writer), would have made Pearl more dramatic, or straight-laced, it would have given their relationship an extra amount of comedic flavor.
At one point, a drastic turn of events occurs, only to turn into an incredibly predictable cliché. I can’t help but wonder how much emotional power the end of the film might have had had they actually followed through on the event without trying to milk it for laughs. It probably would have added so much complexity to Tammy’s character and given her a much richer reason to seek a change in her life — to make it what she truly wants it to be. Not only that, but it would have made the speech from Kathy Bates (who plays Pearl’s cousin Lenore) that much more significant.
Is the film a dud? No. It has enough laughs and emotion to keep it afloat (and I’m extremely happy McCarthy didn’t succumb to disgusting bathroom humor for cheap laughs). Is McCarthy’s comedy getting a little old? Maybe. She’s made a career out of self-deprecating humor and the willingness to do anything for a laugh. But that type of comedy can wear real thin real quick, and if McCarthy wants to sustain her career and continue to drive box office numbers, she’s going to have to find, or develop, material that isn’t just a showcase for her, but one that truly cares about the support she so desperately needs to make her destination all that much clearer.
My Grade: B
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