The poster for Melissa McCarthy’s new movie Tammy features the actress in a “Mahalo” T-shirt, baggy high waters, and Crocs, arms upraised outside of a fast food restaurant, like the proud inheritor to a comedy throne once occupied by Chris Farley — outsized, sloppy, and absolutely unashamed, the new queen of not giving a fuck.
With Tammy, McCarthy’s finally solo, headlining her own movie, which opens July 2 at the start of a prime holiday weekend (“Declare your independence,” the tagline urges). The film has been made to look like it doubles up on the sort of outrageous, brash, physical humor that’s made her a thriving movie star ever since her Oscar-nominated, scene-stealing role in Bridesmaids.
But this isn’t the go-for-broke adventure its marketing may have you expecting. The shaggy, slack, but ultimately still pretty likable road-movie-to-nowhere is as prone to pathos as it is to having McCarthy tear up a dance floor, crash a jet ski, or offer some filter-free observations on her own sex appeal. Yes, Tammy still has the actress doing things like riding on the hood of a car until she flies off, then bouncing up and bellowing, “I stuck the landing!” But that’s not its only or even its main interest.
Tammy, which McCarthy co-wrote with her husband and first-time director Ben Falcone, showcases how fragile the rambunctious eponymous character actually is. It’s a film that’s made to showcase its star’s remarkable ability to make a hairpin turn from blustery fearlessness right into poignant plaintiveness. The amount of time it focuses on the latter is bound to disappoint anyone expecting something rowdier, but as the first movie McCarthy’s had a hand in creating herself, it speaks to the kind of role she wants to play. Tammy’s rough, abrasive, impulsive, selfish, and immature, but she’s not a cartoon or the comic relief — goddamn right, she’s the heroine.
She’s also a Missouri woman who, at the start of the movie, loses her job, car, marriage, and home in one lousy, funny day. The job’s at a fast food chain called Topper Jack’s, the car’s a beat-up Corolla, and the husband’s Greg (Nat Faxon), who’s been cheating with the neighbor, Missi (Toni Collette). The affair is almost more hurtful in how courtly and chaste it seems to be as they’re discovered having dinner together, as opposed to in bed together. Tammy flees in distress to her mother Deb’s (Allison Janney) house next door to announce her intentions to blow town, something she threatens to do whenever she gets really upset — only this time, her alcoholic grandmother Pearl (Susan Sarandon) is willing to pay the way, as long as she’s able to come with.
It’s the setup to a wackier movie than what follows, in which Tammy’s forced to deal with an elderly relative who actually has it even less together than she does, who isn’t taking her meds, and who’s willing to ditch her granddaughter to hook up with a guy named Earl (Gary Cole) whom she meets in a BBQ joint while Tammy and his son Bobby (Mark Duplass) wait uncomfortably for them to finish. But it’s that game of responsibility chicken with Pearl that allows the movie to show the vulnerability just underneath Tammy’s outlandish protective showing.
Like other characters McCarthy has played, Tammy is aggressive, profane, and seems to have an incredible amount of unearned confidence, but it’s a bubble that’s easily burst. In the early scene in which Tammy comes home to find Greg and Missi having dinner, she bleats, “You never made me dinner, not even once,” and suddenly, an amusing row of tantrum becomes genuinely sad.
After Bobby rejects Tammy’s silly, Megan-in-Bridesmaids-style pass, her exchanges with him shift to the more grounded, self-deprecating tone of someone who’s flirting without expecting to be taken seriously. Tammy may seem indestructible at first, but she’s far from it, and the movie makes it clear that her swagger is an agreed-upon illusion between her and everyone watching, and that it’s actually painfully easy to cut her down.
Tammy is definitely an awkward creation that never quite knits together McCarthy’s dramatic moments with the ones in which she struts to Macklemore in a parking lot. But its smaller pieces are the ones that stand out the most — Tammy charming Bobby despite himself, or Pearl’s cousin Lenore (Kathy Bates) busting out a hilarious dance move at her lesbian Fourth of July party. It may be ramshackle, but Tammy stands somewhere between the type of film that’s made McCarthy famous and the ones she seems to want to really make — ones in which she gets to do something other than clown around, in which she gets to have a romance and some softer moments, as any leading lady does.