An slightly abridged version of this review was originally published in Nathaniel's column at Towleroad
One of the best developments of movie advertising this past decade is the use of single scenes as teasers. Remember when The Devil Wears Prada used the opening sequence, fashion magazine peons freaking out about the arrival of Miranda Priestley as a perfect hook? Do you want to see more? Yes Ma’am!
Tammy employed a similar tactic at first giving you a peak at the actual movie instead of a greatest hits montage. The first tease was a single scene of Melissa McCarthy clumsily robbing a fast-food restaurant in a dumb paper bag mask: too large to clear the counter, too blind to lock a storage room door, too sweet to be threatening. “You want some pies? You want pies” It’s a very funny sequence promising a slapstick filled comedy about a bumbling amateur criminal. Melissa McCarthy is currently on top of Hollywood’s food chain after three consecutive smash hits (Bridesmaid, Identity Thief and The Heat) the first and last of which are top-notch comedies, continually funny, bracingly rude and totally rewatchable.
Unfortunately, the robbery proves to be Tammy’s single best bit and, oops, we’ve already seen the whole thing. [More...]
Tammy was written and directed by Ben Falcone, Melissa McCarthy’s real life husband who also co-starred with her in Bridesmaids as the Federal Agent she seduces with her surprising flexibility. But McCarthy’s comedy isn’t as nimble or fresh this time. She’s repeating herself and needs stronger material or duet partners fighting for top billing. She can still pull a laugh from thin air without any jokes around (part of the problem because it doesn’t encourage actual jokes to be written). But why does the movie borrow character arc and plot elements from Identity Thief? A car radio scene and a prison releases scene are direct lifts. That’s a terrible movie. If you’re going to steal from yourself, go for the good stuff!
Tammy is a better film than that, but it’s not particular funny and struggles with tone. There’s too much real pain (alcoholism, failed marriages, childhood trauma, illness) to laugh from the half-hearted intermittent attempts at making light of them. Within the first reel Tammy has lost her job, her marriage and her car (her dignity gone before the opening credits). Soon she’s on the road with her randy grandmother (Susan Sarandon) despite her mother’s (Alison Janney) protests. But her grandmother has just as many unfunny problems. The casting of the three generations is bizarre - were they all pregnant in grade school? Sarandon is such a well preserved beauty that a gray wig and prosthetic cankles ain’t going to cut it.
The actors outside of Sarandon and McCarthy have almost nothing to do. The peripheral cast seems to have been chosen for their familiar faces more than any need to have other characters in the movie: there's Toni Collette with nothing to do again. Here's Allison Janney just to look on disapprovingly. There's Kathy Bates in the Kathy Bates role. Hi Sandra Oh. You put your hands on people's shoulders sympathetically so well!
When the fast food robbery scene finally arrives it’s sandwiched between a health scare and a lesbian Fourth of July party which is curiously played totally straight (no pun intended). It's true. The lesbian party has almost no jokes, or at least not memorable ones, a perfect example of the movies tendency to miss multiple opportunities for laugh lines. Sometimes a scene will be humming along with a mild chuckle as you wait for the punchline and it just never comes. The party ends with a mean-spirited bit of drama and the robbery is way less funny in its new mildly sour context within a movie that is as terrible as Tammy herself at applying itself and sticking with a plan. It makes half-hearted stabs at everything: slapstick comedy, sweet romance, family drama, character study, and women on the lam fun.
The surest measure of a comedy is how many jokes are left out of the trailers. Not to get all stuffy and corporate about it but in pre-production it couldn’t hurt to earmark the scenes you plan to use in trailers and then whip out this handy flow chart. The box before filming says “Can you fit all your best jokes into the trailer?” If your answer is “Yes” it loops you back around to the start: “Write a funny movie”
If all of your best gags can fit into two to five minutes of pre-release promotional material, what are you going to do with the other 90? Asking for a joke a minute is a pretty low bar for a star as talented as Melissa McCarthy to clear. It’s certainly lower than that fast food counter and Tammy manages that on her third attempt. If only she wanted laughs as much as she wanted those pies.
MVP: Melissa McCarthy obviously but she's better when she has to wrestle with a formidable scene partner who also wants the laughs (think Sandra Bullock or a Kristen Wiig) than as a solo act. But mild surprise: Mark DuPlass makes a surprisingly plausible romantic comedy lead, believably attracted to McCarthy despite his initial resistance though this attraction mystifies him.
Oscar Chances: No. We always wish comedies had a better shot at gold statues... but only when they're great.