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‘Tammy:’ Melissa McCarthy road trip hits a speed bump

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Tammy

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Melissa McCarthy is one of the fastest rising stars in the movie business, and seems to be able to milk pure gold out of almost any comedic property. “Tammy,” which she stars in and co-wrote with Ben Falcone, an actor (and probably not coincidentally, McCarthy’s husband) making his directorial debut, is a speed bump on her express lane to superstardom.

McCarthy plays the title role, a disheveled and disorganized fast food worker who gets fired after being late to work, and comes home to find that her husband (Nat Faxon) is having an affair with a neighbor (Toni Collette). Tammy packs her bag (sort of) and heads to her mother’s (Allison Janney), a few doors up the block. The mother/daughter tensions run deep in this family. Tammy’s alcoholic grandmother Pearl (Susan Sarandon) also lives there, and although she apparently doesn’t get along with Tammy any better than she does with her daughter, suggests that she and her granddaughter get out of town. Before long, Pearl has convinced Tammy to have a few beers while driving, with predictable results.

That driving while intoxicated is treated so lightly in the current climate is indicative of the problems this movie has almost from the get-go. Comedy often results from depictions of circumstances that wouldn’t be funny in real life, but this takes a lighter and more perceptive hand than we have here. Sarandon may have thought this would be a clever parody of “Thelma & Louise,” but “Tammy” seldom gets near being even that smart. There isn’t really anything funny about knocking over merchandise displays by cash registers, but the movie repeats this excuse for a gag at least three times.

The spine of this movie should have been Tammy and Pearl helping each other overcome their demons, but the script isn’t smart enough for that, and there are too many side trips fueled by Tammy’s pathological ignorance and rudeness. This is trying to make a lead out of a character that would be a supporting character in most comedies. As to Sarandon’s character, her alcoholism, although finally ending in a barrage of cruel, angry and unfunny insults directed at Tammy’s weight, is treated so glibly it might otherwise be a Passages of Malibu commercial.

Much of this movie smacks of ad lib-itis, a nearly incurable condition caused by letting the inmates take over the asylum on movie sets, usually when the script is thin and the filmmakers delude themselves into thinking they’ll flesh it out during shooting. Actors almost always think they’re funnier than they really are. It’s particularly applicable to vanity projects, and “Tammy,” sadly, reeks of vanity project.

Road trips in movies are usually thinly disguised metaphors for voyages of self-discovery. That presumes of course that the audience cares whether or not the main character finds themselves. Tammy is problematical. The character doesn’t make much sense - she’s supposed to be the daughter of Allison Janney, who’s less than ten years older than McCarthy in real life, but how this clearly intelligent and attractive middle aged managed a daughter who doesn’t know who Mark Twain is, and confused Neil Armstrong with Lance Armstrong, is difficult to understand. It’s also hard to reconcile Tammy’s occasional sexual self-confidence with the apparent lack of self-esteem that would accompany the character’s confession that she let the ice cream truck driver feel her up in exchange for Klondike bars. (This cannot be product placement. It’s impossible to believe that the manufacturers of Klondike bars would want this sort of identification.)

What’s really going on here is a stock odyssey where Tammy meets big name guest stars along the road - Gary Cole, Kathy Bates, Sandra Oh, Dan Aykroyd, indie darling Mark Duplass - all of whom seem overqualified for their cardboard characters. Only Bates is given much to do, and she’s relegated to her patented, ass-kicking, matriarch with a heart of gold. Her one big moment is as close to a moment of honesty as this relentlessly fake ego trip gets. It isn’t enough to explain Tammy’s climactic transformation, which is dictated more by the fact that this is a movie than anything else. The happy ending feels tacked on and forced, and is certainly not a destination logically arrived at after a well-structured cinematic journey.

Ultimately though, the most frustrating thing about this ego-driven misfire of a movie is the unforgivable squandering of Melissa McCarthy’s gigantic talents. Beautiful and funny with almost preternaturally good comic timing, McCarthy is absolutely wasted here, and by her own script.

“Tammy” is now playing at theaters across the Capital District, including the Bow Tie Cinemas Movieland in Schenectady, The Regal Cinemas Clifton Park Stadium 10 & RPX, The Rotterdam Square Cinema, The Regal Cinemas Colonie Center Stadium 13 & RPX, The Regal Cinemas Crossgates Stadium 18 & IMAX, The Spectrum 7 on Delaware Avenue in Albany, The Regal Cinemas East Greenbush 8 and The Malta Drive-In on Route 9 in Malta.

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