DEBUT FEATURES: Tammy (2014)

Tammy (USA, 2014)
Directed by Ben Falcone
Starring Melissa McCarthy, Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates, Allison Janney

It's frequently the fate of Saturday Night Live comedians to follow a successful television career with an immensely underwhelming one in film. The number of SNL cast members who have successfully transitioned to the big screen is relatively small, and the number of successful films based on SNL material is even smaller. For every effort like The Blues Brothers or National Lampoon's Animal House, there are pathetic failures like McGruber, Coneheads and It's Pat! which fall well short of the required standard.
What is ultimately required for any SNL cast member seeing to making the leap is to find the right vehicle, something which can showcase their comedic talents while allowing them to break out of the confinements of TV sketches and demonstrate their potential range. Melissa McCarthy may have already found considerable commercial success since Bridesmaids, but she has yet to find a leading vehicle which genuinely plays to all her strengths. The kindest thing you can say about Tammy is that it isn't the vehicle she needs - though given how trashy mainstream taste has become, it is probably the one we deserve.
Like We're The Millers from the year before, the central problem with Tammy is a total lack of effort on the part of the director in the face of half-decent material. The fact that Ben Falcone is married to his main star may lead to any number of snide remarks about Hollywood relationships, but the problem goes much deeper than any nepotistic tendencies. Falcone's track record in TV is hardly inspiring, helming the Friends spin-off Joey and odd episodes of New Girl - both shows which think they are a great deal funnier and cleverer than they ever had any hope of being.
McCarthy is a talented screen presence, and on a shallow level it's gratifying to find a woman succeeding in Hollywood without being stereotypically skinny. But try as she might, Tammy is a film which constantly conspires against her attempts to bring depth and likeability to her character. It may be more cinematic than a direct spin-off from SNL, insofar as it doesn't overtly feel like a drawn-out series of sketches, but it fails by constantly going for the cheap, low-end gag when it could achieve something funnier and more meaningful with just a little more effort.
Buried somewhere within the misplaced (or misjudged) comic intentions of Tammy, there is a potentially tender and pathos-ridden drama. The lynchpin of the film is the relationship between Tammy and her alcoholic, diabetic grandmother, played with cantankerous glee by Susan Sarandon. Her character takes heavily after Maude in Harold and Maude, being an elderly person definitely not acting her age, and their interplay is the only thing that manages to hold our attention throughout.
Had Falcone and McCarthy, who wrote the script together, had the confidence to play to an audience's patience and intelligence, this could have been a touching comedy-drama about women struggling to find their place in a society where men don't accept them for who they are, and where superficial appearances count for far too much. There are substantial sections of the story where we feel story for Tammy as a character: for all her grotesqueness, rough edges and bad decision-making, she's someone who doesn't deserve many of the problems which befall her. The opening act, involving her husband cheating on her, is a scene that could easily have ended up in The First Wives Club.
But whether through a lack of confidence, studio pressure or a simple failure in judgement, this is not the film which has resulted. Instead these patches of decently-constructed drama are interspersed with asinine, three-rate gross-out set-pieces. Under these circumstances the central relationship between McCarthy and Sarandon becomes like the Werner Herzog sequences with the nuns in Harmony Korine's Mr. Lonely: a diverting dramatic interlude with narrative gravity, punctuating an aimless, unfunny and poorly constructed mess.
Even by the low, throwaway standards of SNL, most of these sequences would have ended up on the cutting room floor. The bee routine is lazy and goes nowhere, and the arguments which Tammy gets into make too little sense to either be funny or advance the plot. The scene where Tammy robs a fast food outlet is badly paced and shambolically assembled, with lots of needless pauses as though McCarthy was waiting for the audience to laugh. Watching these sequences not only gives you the dull, depressing ache which comes from not laughing during a comedy: you also have a solid pang of disappointment in the knowledge that, on the form of Bridesmaids at least, McCarthy can and should do so much better.
McCarthy comes across as our generation's equivalent of John Candy - not only in any form of physical comparison, but also their ability to match a goofy sense of humour with genuine pathos. Both Candy and McCarthy take heavily after the world of clowning, following on the legacy of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin of marrying physical pandemonium with an underlying melancholy. In the hands of a good director, both aspects are balanced, but here McCarthy is all energy and no foundation, resulting in a performance which is increasingly aimless and arbitrary.
Sarandon's presence in the film may lead us to make a comparison with The Lovely Bones, Peter Jackson's admirable but heavy flawed attempt to adapt Alice Sebold's equally problematic novel. Purely on a like-for-like basis, Sarandon's 'crazy grandmother' here is better than her performance in Jackson's film, and the moral choices that the characters make, while still questionable, are not actively reprehensible. Both films also have uncomfortable tonal lurches, with the shifts from silly and serious seeming random and incongruous.
In the midst of all this disaster and wasted opportunity, there are a couple of redeeming features which prevent Tammy from being a total waste of time. Some of the supporting cast do very well with the limited material presented to them, particularly Kathy Bates in a role which brings fond memories of her appearance in About Schmidt. Dan Aykroyd's brief cameo is all pretty good fun, or at least a lot funnier than many of the projects to which he has lent himself over the last few years.
Tammy also looks pretty accomplished from a visual point of view. Russ T. Alsobrook is in familiar territory, having worked with Falcone on New Girl and lent his cinematographer's eye to the likes of Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Paul Blart: Mall Cop. If nothing else, he makes Tammy's trashy beginnings look believable, and while his compositions and lighting choices are nothing special, he does provide some form of continuity to prevent the film from feeling too episodic.
Tammy is a disappointing outing for McCarthy which plays to too few of her strengths and fulfills on far too little of its potential. The central relationship, when it can get a word in edgeways, and the performances of the supporting cast prevent it from being an unmitigated disaster. But while it's basically watchable, there's precious little here to make it memorable or to generate a hearty recommendation. McCarthy remains a talent to keep on one's horizons, but this is not the project she deserves. 


NEXT REVIEW: My 250th review on Mumby at the Movies!