Melissa McCarthy has had trouble over the last decade deciding what type of performer she wants to be. In projects like Gilmore Girls, she plays funny, realistic people that make mistakes but still deserve respect; in projects like Identity Thief, she just demeans herself for comedy and lets the camera laugh at her instead of with her. That indecision and identity crisis permeates Tammy, a movie that doesn’t know what it wants to be or even what it thinks of its protagonist.
Tammy (McCarthy) has not done much with her life. She works at a fast-food restaurant, leads a boring home life, and would surely lose on Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?. In the span of a few hours on one particularly bad day, Tammy gets a head injury and destroys her car by hitting a deer, gets fired, and discovers her husband is cheating on her. She packs her things and walks next door to her mother’s (Allison Janney) house, where she decides to leave town. Tammy’s grandmother, Pearl (Susan Sarandon), is sick of living with Tammy’s mother and decides to bankroll Tammy’s trek and join her.
With on-the-road comedies, an actor can try to show the humanity of their joke of a character (like John Candy did in Planes, Trains & Automobiles) or they can embrace their goofiness completely and not try to enter emotional territory (like Chris Farley in Tommy Boy), but the two options are so distant from each other that it doesn’t work in Tammy. You can never tell whether you’re supposed to feel bad for Tammy and her sad life or if you’re supposed to laugh at how pathetic and uncoordinated she is, which is a devastatingly flaw in a movie like this.
Of course, to compare Tammy to those road-trip movies is only half of a fair comparison, because only half of it is even a road-trip movie. It gets bored with that after a while and turns into a dramedy, while also trying to shoehorn random meet-cute moments between Tammy and love interest Bobby (Mark Duplass). And none of that is including the scene or two of pure, heavyweight drama that jarringly come out of nowhere. Co-writer and director Ben Falcone (McCarthy’s real-life husband) can’t settle on a tone for the whole movie, which makes for an exhausting experience at times.
If there’s one fantastic aspect of the movie, it’s the supporting cast. In addition to Sarandon, Duplass, and Janney, Tammy boasts a cast of Dan Aykroyd, Sarah Baker, Kathy Bates, Gary Cole, Toni Collette, Nat Faxon, and Sandra Oh. The only issue (small, though, it may be) is that each of them is only around for 10 or 15 minutes of the movie. Aykroyd and Bates, in particular, are excellent with the screen time they’re given but disappear far too quickly.
The parts of Tammy that work do work well. It would be a lie to say there aren’t legitimately funny parts in the movie. Then again, random parts of the movie aren’t even trying to be funny, so it makes less sense to criticize their un-funniness than to question what the movie is even trying to do. Tammy may be the only movie with a protagonist cradling a dying loved one and crying real tears, just 60 minutes after showing her giving mouth-to-mouth to a deer in the middle of the road.