One of the best ways to vanquish your inner demons, Hollywood has often taught us, is to run away from them. There are few problems so big that they can’t be overcome by taking a life-affirming road trip, during which you’re sure to find both adventure and self-discovery. Lost your job, spouse, and/or all sense of purpose in your life? Committed a crime in the heat of passion? Feeling suffocated by the pressures and expectations of being a royal heiress? When your life suddenly takes a turn for the worse—hit the road.
That’s the lesson of Tammy, the latest from the increasingly bankable Melissa McCarthy, who stars in a role she also co-wrote with her husband and the film’s director Ben Falcone. Creatively, there are few surprises to be had from the movie’s beat-by-beat execution of its familiar formula, but Falcone stuffs the film’s brisk 90-minute run-time with crude jokes, illicit hijinks, and even a touching moment here and there. And the playful energy between McCarthy and her completely game co-star, Susan Sarandon is more than enough to keep the movie humming along.
When the film opens, the titular character is at the end of her rope—a collision with a deer totals her car and her boss (played by Falcone) fires her from her soul-sucking fast food job at the fictional Topper Jack’s. To cap off this terrible, horrible, no-good day, Tammy mopes home to find her husband (Nat Faxon) sharing a cozy meal with their neighbor Missi (Toni Collette), with whom he’s having an affair.
After bidding the lovebirds a sad though amusing good riddance (“You never made me dinner, not once!” she laments. “And it smells really good, too”), the only thing left for Tammy to do is to skip town for a while. Her mother, Deb (Allison Janney), by now used to Tammy’s serial misfortunes, refuses to lend her money or let her borrow her car—but lucky for Tammy, her grandmother, Pearl (Sarandon), is in need of her own life-changing adventure and hoping to fulfill a childhood dream of visiting Niagara Falls. Pearl has the cash and the car to get them both on their way.
Set aside your initial bewilderment at the casting choices—Sarandon, at 67, plays mother to Janney (54) and grandmother to McCarthy (43)—and it’s pretty easy to go along for much of the fun that ensues. Sarandon, decked out in loose-fitting patterned separates and sporting a mildly acerbic demeanor, seems to have modeled her character on Maxine, the spry, wry old greeting-card lady, only with a darkly alcoholic twist. McCarthy, meanwhile, wields her signature brazen style, which at once complements Pearl’s attitude while also sparking tension as the road trip chugs north toward the falls. Consider, for example, the scene in which Pearl—fueled, as usual, by excessive alcohol consumption—effortlessly picks up a man named Earl at a bar while Tammy strikes out with his mild-mannered son Bobby, whom she accosts on his way to the bathroom by abruptly planting a long, awkward kiss on his lips.
Sarandon and McCarthy make for an electric comedic duo, but the film winds off course as the road trip progresses, jumping between tones (ranging from light-hearted to macabre) and categories (the movie veers awkwardly into rom-com territory when Bobby eventually becomes Tammy’s underdeveloped love interest). Other characters are hastily folded into the story along the way, including Kathy Bates and Sandra Oh as Lenore and Susanne, a lesbian couple who help hide Tammy and Pearl after they (predictably) find themselves on the run from the law.
Too often, the scenes feel as thinly sketched as the supporting cast. When Pearl explains to Tammy her motivation for wanting to see Niagara Falls, it’s clearly intended to be a revelatory moment for her character, adding dimension to the “cooky old grandma” stereotype. But the scene ends suddenly with a half-hearted quip from Tammy, who wonders aloud why her grandmother has chosen to tell her this story now—when the two are occupying adjacent stalls in a public restroom.
One thing the film does right, however, is allow McCarthy’s audacious humor to ebb and flow. In a departure from previous outings in The Heat, Identity Thief, or in her multiple Saturday Night Live appearances, the comedian occasionally tones down the intensity, letting Sarandon have some of the wackier moments, which she more than handles. Tammy’s attempts to reel in Pearl’s dangerous alcoholism present a more subdued, mild-mannered side of the actress we haven’t much seen on the big screen, and when it works, it works well.
It’s not that McCarthy hasn’t played the straight woman before. Ahead of the fourth season of her CBS sitcom, Mike and Molly, its creator Chuck Lorre explained to incoming showrunner Al Higgins the reason McCarthy is a bigger star in movies than she is in TV: “In her movies, people react to her and on the show, she reacts to everyone else.” (The most recent season of the series was noted for featuring a livelier Molly.) Here, McCarthy is neither too dialed up to bear nor too retiring to make an impression—she frequently finds the sweet spots in a flawed script.
It’s likely no coincidence that she’s exhibiting this quality in a film she co-wrote—she seems to trust her ability to reach beyond broad humor more than some previous writers and directors have. Even if Tammy ultimately loses its way, it’s exciting to see what McCarthy is capable of when she takes the wheel.