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Saturday, July 12, 2014

Review: Tammy (2014)

* * 1/2

Director: Ben Falcone
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Susan Sarandon

I like the idea of Tammy more than I liked its execution. This is a film, after all, where the majority of the speaking parts belong to women (that, in and of itself, feels almost revolutionary), which passes the Bechdel test so easily that it makes you give the side-eye to those films that fail it, and which gives voice to various kinds of women normally ignored by pop culture. On top of that, it's a funny movie, albeit not as frequently laugh out loud funny as last summer's McCarthy-starring The Heat. So what's the problem, then? It's in the construction, mainly. Written by McCarthy and director Ben Falcone, Tammy is a bit too loosey goosey for its own good, lacking in the kind of structure that might have given it some narrative momentum, and burdened with a few well-worn tropes and cues which it would have been better off without. It's not a bad film - sometimes it's quite good - it just doesn't always rise to the occasion.

The film opens with what will prove to be a terrible day for its eponymous heroine (McCarthy). On her way to work she hits a deer with her car, which in turn makes her late. She's then fired and ends up having to abandon her car at the side of the road when it breaks down, and when she finally gets home she finds her husband having a romantic dinner with their neighbor. This is the last straw which prompts Tammy to declare that she's finally going to leave her old life behind and start fresh somewhere else. Needing a car in order to make her escape, she reluctantly agrees to bring her grandmother, Pearl (Susan Sarandon), along for the ride since Pearl has both a car and a large wad of cash that she's willing to put towards the trip. With no idea where she herself wants to go, Tammy agrees to take Pearl to Niagra Falls, a place that she has wanted to visit ever since a planned trip when she was a kid fell through. However, things start to go sideways when Pearl's drinking gets out of hand, resulting in her and Tammy being arrested following an altercation with a couple of teenagers outside a liquor store. While Pearl is able to post Tammy's bail from what remains of the wad of cash, there isn't enough left to get Pearl out, too, leaving Tammy trying to find a way to put together the difference. To make matters worse, Tammy learns that Pearl set off on the road trip without the many pills that she takes during the course of the day and she's now suffering the consequences.

In an effort to raise the necessary funds to bail Pearl out of jail, Tammy holds up a fast food joint (part of the same franchise from which she's just been fired), but when she returns to the jail with the money, she learns that Pearl has already been bailed out courtesy of Earl (Gary Cole), a man she had picked up during a stop on their trip. Needing to lay low while the police are on the look out for a woman fitting her general description and driving a car towing a jet ski, Tammy and Pearl hide out with Pearl's cousin, Lenore (Kathy Bates), and her partner, Susanne (Sandra Oh), who help them destroy both the car and the jet ski. Things are beginning to look up, and Tammy even has a romantic prospect on the horizon in the form of Bobby (Mark Duplass), Earl's son who finds himself slowly charmed by her as they are continually thrust together by the antics of her grandmother and his father, but after Pearl drunkenly humiliates Tammy at a 4th of July party, the good times come to an abrupt end and everything finally comes to a head.

The first hurdle that many viewers will encounter is in suspending their disbelief enough to accept Sarandon as McCarthy's grandmother. Mother? Sure, the math on that works, but grandmother? And as the mother of Allison Janney (and, for that matter, Janney as McCarthy's mother)? That's a bit of a brain buster. Ultimately, however, it ends up working simply because Sarandon's performance is so good and though, sight unseen, one might lament that an actress of her caliber is now wasting away in "wacky grandmother" roles, neither Sarandon nor the film allow Pearl to be "wacky," per se, and there's actually a fair bit of substance to the role. Pearl is an alcoholic and Sarandon and the film approach that issue not as an entry into potential shenanigans, but as a facet of Pearl's personality that has been present probably for her entire adult life, something which has roots and which speaks in some ways to Pearl's experiences. Because Sarandon doesn't overplay it, doesn't resort to mugging, there's a lived-in quality to Pearl's alcoholism that makes it more than just the means for the third act conflict that threatens to drive Pearl and Tammy apart (a conflict which, it should be noted, the film doesn't really need but which convention dictates it ought to have).

Moreover, Sarandon and McCarthy play off of each other very well and have a different dynamic than characters in McCarthy's previous vehicles, which found her matching her "bull in china shop" antics to the uptight straightman performances of Sandra Bullock (The Heat) or Jason Bateman (Identity Thief). Here, McCarthy and Sarandon are both agents of chaos and instead of that feeling like too much of the same, it works because Tammy takes such pains to make them both human beings. The trailers for the film, unfortunately, made it look like McCarthy had been reduced to lazy schtick but in actuality, apart from some of the pratfalls reminiscent of previous performances, when you watch Tammy she seems less like a "character" and more like a person. She's a person who has the occasional tantrum and makes some bad decisions on impulse, but despite the roughness around her edges there's an actual human being there (just as there is with Pearl), and there's a sense that the angry outbursts are a response to the fact that women like her are completely devalued and ignored by society except when they can be made fun of. Take, for example, the scene in which Tammy discovers her husband's affair. It starts out as you might expect with Tammy getting loud and being cast as the object of fun as various comic beats are hit, and then slowing down long enough for Tammy to tearfully point out to her husband that in all the time they've been married, he's never once made her a romantic dinner, as he has done for the neighbor. Beneath the more garish, comic elements of the character, there's an actual person there, and it's to the film's credit that it finds a way to make Tammy the comic center of its storytelling while still taking her seriously as a person.

Doing well by its characters is ultimately the thing that Tammy does best, featuring the kinds of women that most movies would use solely as a punchline if they used them at all (to wit: women of a certain age, women of a certain size, lesbians of the type that run contrary to the ultra femmy Hollywood ideal - the only place where Tammy falters in its efforts to show all kinds of women is with respect to racial diversity, as save for Oh in her small role, the film is a sea of white faces). This is part of the reason why I had so much trouble parsing out my feelings about Tammy. The film does so much right in terms of trying to speak to and for a variety of types of women that are otherwise voiceless in pop culture, and it's so noticeably and refreshingly different from basically everything else out there right now, that I wanted to like the film a lot more than I ultimately did. Tammy nails it in terms of the performances, but on a narrative level it could use some tightening, because parts of it feel really slack (and at 96 minutes, there's really no excuse for it to feel like it has so many extraneous elements). Still, I would give the film a qualified recommendation based on the things it does well, and even if it didn't have those things I might still recommend it based solely on McCarthy's rendering of the line (while dousing Pearl's car with gasoline) "Four dollars a gallon - thanks Obamacare!" because I'm not sure any line in any recent film has more perfectly encapsulated the contemporary political conversation than that.

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