Melissa McCarthy has become one of the most significant breakout comedy stars over the last five years. In television, we have her Emmy-winning work on Mike & Molly; in the movies it’s a sequence of increasingly higher-profile supporting or co-starring roles in R-rated comedies, from Bridesmaids to Identity Thief to The Heat. Now she has her first solo lead role in Tammy, directed by her husband Ben Falcone, with whom McCarthy co-wrote the script. But while it’s some decently funny stuff, I find myself wishing that McCarthy could get a wider (sorry) selection of material than two variations on the same basic idea.
Tammy is a midwestern, wrong-kind-of-white-people answer to the schlemiel. Circumstances and her own blithe idiocy conspire to never let things turn out in her favor. While rooting around in her beat-up Corolla one day, she runs into a deer. This makes her late for her fast-food job, where the peevish manager (Falcone) fires her on the spot. She makes it back home earlier than expected to catch her husband and the neighbor (Nat Faxon and Toni Collette), sending her two houses down to the resigned solace of her mother (Allison Janney).
Tammy has tried to run away from her hometown in a snit before, but this time she enlists her grandmother, Pearl (Susan Sarandon). It’s not so much out of any particular affection — Pearl is an ornery alcoholic — as for her Cadillac and the giant wad of cash she’s saved up. Still aimless, they set their sights on Niagara Falls and stumble their way as far as Louisville, where Pearl catches the attentions of the lecherous Earl (Gary Cole), who is himself accompanied by his bemused son, Bobby (Mark Duplass). And then things really fall apart.
Don’t get me wrong; I thoroughly enjoyed Tammy, and laughed pretty consistently throughout. McCarthy plays Tammy with abandon, and she’s very good at it. But at heart this character is not that far removed from the Boston detective she played in The Heat, or the con artist from Identity Thief. Her movie roles do have a different, raunchier feel than her work as Molly Flynn, but it feels like McCarthy has a lot more to offer.
Both as Molly and in her film roles, McCarthy is great at making real characters where comedy producers like Adam Sandler — and even Judd Apatow, to be honest — would see only caricature, but still they’re primarily fat. And she’s not alone; there may be more fat ladies in movies and television today, but it’s only really okay for a lady to be fat if she’s either pathetic or crude about it.
Sarah Baker, who gets featured in a subplot here, struggled to be more than the fat-cat-lady in last year’s Go On. Her appearance in one of the best episodes on this season of Louie was a fantastic rebuke to this trend, and yet it was still mostly about her weight, even bearing the title “So Did the Fat Lady”. Rebel Wilson had her own series, Super Fun Night, this last season, which like Mike & Molly often felt like an excuse to make fat jokes by pretending to laugh with-not-at.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Kathy Bates has built an award-winning career out of roles that have little to do with being a fat lady. Even when they do turn on her weight, there’s much more to the character than just that. As Pearl’s cousin, she gives Tammy a talking-to that could double as advice to McCarthy herself: stop taking the easy road and defining yourself in terms of what other people expect of you.
Sure, Tammy is funny, and Melissa McCarthy is great at playing this character. But this feels like the distillation of almost all the characters she ever plays, and it would be a shame if she never managed to move past this point. A one-note performer always grows stale, no matter how well she plays that one note.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.