If Tammy, Melissa McCarthy's latest film, is a disappointment, it's a very mild one. The comedy made less than the actress's last two movies, The Heat and Identity Thief, over a wan July 4th holiday weekend — but with a budget of only $20 million, it'll still easily turn a profit. Critics didn't like Tammy (though I didn't think it was so bad), but it still netted a higher score on Rotten Tomatoes than Identity Thief. It's not a big hit, but it's hardly a failure, nor a sign that McCarthy needs to rethink her career.
It's also not a vanity project, which is maybe the most irritating and problematic dismissal that's been attached to the film. Several critics, including Time's Richard Corliss, designated it as such, as did the New York Times' Brooks Barnes when noting McCarthy "acted in the movie, produced it, and co-wrote the script with her husband, Ben Falcone, who also made his directing debut with the film."
Never mind that an actor making his or her own movie means it'll be described as a "personal" or "passion" project just as often as a "vanity" one (the difference comes down to how much someone likes the result). In working to shape her own movies, McCarthy's just doing what most of her fellow Apatow-adjacent comedic performers have already done: Steve Carell wrote and executive produced The 40-Year-Old Virgin; Seth Rogen's been writing, producing, and with This Is the End, directing with his bestie Evan Goldberg; and Jason Segel has scripted several projects he's also starred in, including the upcoming Sex Tape with Cameron Diaz.
But those movies aren't called vanity projects — they are, among other things, good business. And frankly, Carell, Rogen, and Segel are white dudes, and Hollywood's already got plenty of potential movies floating around that are intended for white dudes to star in. There's much more of an impetus for women and people of color to generate their own projects because the industry largely continues to fail to do so otherwise, which is why every time a female-centric comedy is a hit, it's greeted with shock that women actually see movies, and why Tyler Perry bewildered countless executives in managing to build an entertainment empire by making work for a sizable, underserved black audience.
So it's not just unfair to call Tammy a vanity project for these reasons, it's a little perverse, suggesting it's more dignified to wait to be offered roles Hollywood is still incredibly slow to create — particularly for an actress who doesn't look like the idealized female star. And oddest of all, it doesn't fit the term's more traditional definition, referring to something a celebrity made happen for him or herself because no one else would ever go for it. McCarthy's become a hot box office commodity over the last few years, and New Line reportedly bought Tammy without even reading the script. A bawdy comedy featuring a popular, Oscar-nominated A-lister isn't exactly someone's incomprehensible art project.
Tammy's actually least interesting when delivering the expected shtick — when the character crashes a Jet Ski or does a goofy dance in the parking lot. It's best when it digs into the brashly confident comedic persona McCarthy's been adopting, showing some of the pathos and fragility underneath. The film's been criticized in harsh terms for its off-color content, as if it were all the rowdy footage trotted out in the trailer, but this is also a movie that lets McCarthy actually wear a flattering outfit, and that lets her have an honest-to-god sweet and grounded romance with Mark Duplass — and even that's conducted with decorous meekness, the camera pulling back to a distance when they finally kiss.
You may not like McCarthy's work or her big screen persona, but wanting a role that's more than just the burly, outrageous sidekick isn't vanity. And even if Tammy isn't a masterpiece, McCarthy deserves credit for looking for ways to play off of and broaden her brand. She's shown she's capable of more on television — now the movies just need to catch up.