Thursday, July 3, 2014

Road to Somewhere: TAMMY

Melissa McCarthy is a movie star and that makes me very happy. It’s not just that she’s incredibly likable, intensely sympathetic, and awfully funny in everything I’ve seen her in. She’s also a woman who is over forty and isn’t a supermodel. Even when she is in a bad movie, she’s wonderful. That her talent and charm is recognized on a level that makes her an Oscar nominee and a bona fide box office draw is good enough. That she has chosen to cash in on this recognition by writing herself a starring role in a big studio movie, then made room for a generous ensemble of beloved actresses of all ages, shapes, and sizes is even better. Tammy, which she co-wrote with her husband Ben Falcone, who also directs and appears in a brief role, is an unkempt road trip comedy that pokes around Midwestern towns, celebrating underdogs wherever it may find them. It’s a little scattershot, a little uneven, and the direction creaks with the slips of a safe first-time filmmaker shooting blandly, putting the camera in a spot to capture the comedy and little more. But when jokes land it’s gut-bustingly hilarious, and when they miss, at least the film is still so warm and generous.

That generosity of spirit stands out in stark contrast to the rest of the Hollywood comedy machine. So often R-rated comedies (and many PG-13, and some of the PG) are purposelessly crass, uncomfortable, and mean-spirited, usually omnidirectionally, but mostly punching down to those least worth laughing at. Look at how smug a Grown Ups or Horrible Bosses or Bad Teacher can be, asking us to sympathize with obliviously privileged upper-middle-class (almost exclusively white) people being cruel to each other and laughing at those who would stand in their way, or worse, dare to exist outside their group. The quiet revolution of Tammy is the way it finds compassion for characters of all types. At its center is a working-class woman whose blundering rudeness is a cover for her insecurity. She comes by her sloppiness honestly. She’s ground down by the world and the  movie decides to help her pick herself back up. She has a good heart underneath her surface slob – tangled hair, greasy T-shirts, baggy shorts, clutter and litter – and the movie is kind enough to see that.

It starts with the woman of the title late for work at a KFC knockoff. Her car’s busted after she hit a deer or, as she puts it, a deer hit her. It’s the last straw, so her boss fires her. After throwing a comical fit through the cheap restaurant – “That’s not chicken!” she hollers at the patrons – she storms home and finds her husband (Nat Faxon) cheating on her with a neighbor (Toni Collette). Then, tearfully trying to maintain composure, her suitcase breaks open, spilling belongings every which way as she leaves. Tammy can’t take it. She storms over to see her mother (Allison Janney) and demands the car keys, vowing to leave their stupid small town once and for all. Her grandmother (Susan Sarandon) thinks that sounds good, packs her booze, and runs away with her. Together they set off for Niagara Falls, but one thing after another (a jet ski accident, drunken disorderly behavior, and more) puts roadblocks in their path. They’re loud, wild, and difficult, quick to bristle at any slights real or perceived. They’re quite a pair. 

The loose, episodic plotting takes them to campgrounds, roadside diners, a BBQ, liquor stores, fast food joints, jail, and a lakeside mansion owned by a distant relative (Kathy Bates at her most lovable). From time to time, it even threatens to tip over into a small-time caper. There’s a pair of robbery scenes that had me laughing hysterically through McCarthy’s fumbling bravado, clumsy mannerisms, and others’ reactions to her. Through it all Tammy struggles with finding a new, more productive path for her life and her randy grandma struggles with alcohol. There are moments of real drama between them, as drunken sniping hurts and diabetes is deadly serious. But mostly it’s a lark that regards their plight with sympathy. It’s a road movie without much of a sense of direction and once in a while spins it wheels, but that seems to match the lead duo’s lives pretty well.

As setbacks, both accidental and self-inflicted, weigh her down, Tammy just keeps charging forward. There’s this small gesture that never fails to make me snicker. She moves forward with total slapstick confidence until she pauses for a brief flicker of doubt – am I behaving strangely? – before doubling down on her commitment to whatever physical gag she’s in the middle of. McCarthy is as dexterous with slapstick as she is with banter and petulant outbursts of profanity. Here she’s a star who lets others share center stage, as generous as the movie she wrote. Everyone, from Sarandon and Bates, to small roles for Gary Cole, Mark Duplass, Sandra Oh, and Sarah Baker (of the terrific monologue that was the high-point of the most recent season of Louie), do fine, charming work. It’s the rare comedy that likes just about everyone, except for the few who deserve a smidge of scorn. But even that goes soft by the end, for the most part.

This sweet, charming, warm-hearted movie is a fun, shaggy, hangout with loveable misfits on a likable self-improvement journey, even if they didn’t realize it at the time. It’s worth the trip. By the end, it’s been a noncondescending Fourth-of-July Midwest tour celebrating the drunk, the sloppy, the unlucky, and the striving, while recognizing their need to make changes for the better. It’s a loving movie full of all manner of average folk: mothers, daughters, and granddaughters; lesbians; fast food workers; bluegrass bands; police officers; farmers; low-level criminals. And they’re all okay in Tammy’s eyes. It ends up being a holiday-weekend tribute to America, land of rough edges and kind hearts, where a woman with a mess of a life can head out into the heartland and figure herself out.

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