The frisky road-trip "Tammy" is all over the map. But mostly in a good way.
This is the first joint big-screen project for Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone, her husband and frequent collaborator, who co-wrote, directs and even has a small part. While it runs afoul of some potholes, it never goes completely off the road and eventually rights itself, thanks to one rowdy cast of actors and characters riding shotgun.
It also has two aces up its sleeve -- Susan Sarandon and Kathy Bates, veteran actresses who play their offbeat, colorful characters to the hilt. In tone and style, "Tammy" reminded me of Steve Martin's hilariously rude 1979 comedy "The Jerk." "Tammy's" not as good, but it's good enough.
In the title role, McCarthy is hilarious, with the same relentless energy she brought to "Bridesmaids" and "The Heat." Tammy is a less-than-sharp blue-collar worker enduring one horribly wretched day. It begins when she runs her car into a deer (not too funny), gets canned from her fast-food job (very funny) by her boss (Falcone) and finds her husband at home romancing the neighbor (less funny than it should be). It's not until she makes a beeline out of her Midwest town with her Grandma Pearl (Sarandon) -- who has a set of wheels, a wad of cash and a free spirit (all very funny) -- that the movie puts its foot on the pedal.
What happens on the road amounts to a series of comedy sketches involving hookups, jail time and burning vehicles. Sometimes they work, sometimes they fall flat. Still, they're exactly the kind of raucous antics that give McCarthy the chance to do what she does best -- play a loosely hinged, mostly abrasive oddball. But even though her Tammy stoops to sticking up a fast-food joint (very, very funny) and sometimes shows the intellect of a flea, her wounded, softer side is eventually revealed. In that way, "Tammy" is something of a dramedy, and a sharper one than you'd think, with McCarthy showing more versatility than just her high-level physical comedy routines. Toward the end, it takes a daring, sharp U-turn into more touching terrain and the smoothness with which it rounds the corner pays off with a satisfying ending.
McCarthy more than meets the challenge, as do many in the cast, especially Bates. Just when the film starts to stall, Bates arrives as Pearl's feisty lesbian cousin Lenore. Her well-written part allows the Oscar-winner some of the film's meatiest scenes, all of which she plays with conviction and spirit. Sarandon, as a very sexual, alcoholic grandma whose benders reveal a cruel streak and explain why Tammy is the way she is, nails every scene she's in. Meanwhile, Mark Duplass is heart-melting as Bobby, Tammy's romantic interest, a decent man she encounters along the way. Bobby finds himself growing attracted to this hot mess of a woman who, like himself, is tending to misbehaving older relatives, in his case, his drunken dad (Gary Cole).
In his first big-screen directorial role, Falcone shows a talent for making awkward situations funny through their genuine absurdity, though he sometimes misses comic opportunities, including the opening deer sequence. He also underuses the talented Toni Collette as the neighbor involved with Tammy's cheating hubby (Nat Faxon) along with Allison Janney as Tammy's mother.
But, hey, as we all know, family road trips are rarely as much fun as we expect them to be.
Rating: R (for language, including sexual references)
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Susan Sarandon, Mark Duplass, Kathy Bates, Sandra Oh, Gary Cole
Director and co-writer: Ben Falcone
Running time: 1 hour,