There’s a reason that Melissa McCarthy, the Oscar-nominated wrecking ball of Bridesmaids, appears pretty much exclusively in buddy comedies. Her shtick, a slapstick destructiveness laced with sarcastic obscenities, requires a foil to play against—a David Spade to her Chris Farley, a straight man (or woman) to balk at her bull-in-a-china-shop antics. Yet in Tammy, her latest comedy, the actress hasn’t been paired off with some exasperated square, a la Identity Thief or The Heat. She’s met her match, and it arrives in the boozy, amorous form of Susan Sarandon, playing the world’s least responsible senior citizen. Losing her car, her job, and her husband over the course of one endless day from hell, McCarthy’s titular fuck-up splits town with hard-drinking, cash-flush Grandma Pearl in the passenger seat. Their destination is Niagara Falls, but the two end up instead in Missouri, their path of destruction paved in empty beer cans, fast-food wrappers, and totaled jet skis.
Tammy, in other words, is a road comedy—one that gets some good mileage out of the rapport between its unlikely travelmates. Boasting a messy tangle of gray hair and a mischievous streak, Sarandon removes some of the burden of outrageousness from the broad shoulders of her co-star, freeing McCarthy to exhibit more of her sensitive side. Maybe too much of it, actually: Despite a couple of broadly comic mishaps—an opening encounter with a CGI deer, an inept robbery—Tammy is a kinder, gentler, and tamer vehicle for its headliner. McCarthy co-wrote the film with her husband, Ben Falcone, who also directed and appears as the heroine’s wormy tyrant of a boss. Their collaborative mojo results in some winning sweetness, but not a lot of hilarity. Tammy eventually makes eyes with a relaxed nice guy played by Mark Duplass, and while it’s faintly charming to see the normally unhinged actress granted a low-key love story, the cuteness can’t compensate for the lack of laughs. McCarthy is going to need better material if she’s going to transition into a rom-com career.
Astutely aware of what a boys’ club big-screen comedy has become, Falcone admirably packs his directorial debut with female talent: The film is perhaps most endearing as a showcase for a fine ensemble of actresses, including Kathy Bates, Allison Janney, Sandra Oh, and Sarah Baker. And Sarandon, again, gamely embraces what could have been a stock role (the troublemaking octogenarian), leaning heavily on her underused comedic chops. (Putting the Thelma & Louise star back in an automobile for another femme-centric road trip is its own stroke of near-genius.) Ultimately, the big problem with Tammy is Tammy herself: She’s an ill-conceived underdog—a down-on-her-luck heroine who oscillates, per the demands of the poky plot, between typically caustic wit and an uncharacteristic defeatism. McCarthy just doesn’t excel at wallowing self-pity; she’s a force of madcap confidence, not a wallflower in need of self-help seminars. Interesting though it is to see her try a different buddy-comedy dynamic, the actress should probably leave the soggy life lessons to, say, Sandra Bullock. No personality this big needs to be “fixed.”