Say this for Melissa McCarthy: A couple of years into her stardom, and not all that far past the dust-up over critics’ deriding her comic reliance on the sight gag that is her physique, she puts it all out there in the opening moments of “Tammy,” a star vehicle she co-wrote for herself.
From the moment we meet her, Tammy is a slovenly, morbidly obese vulgarian, from the top of her home-dye-job mop to the bottom of her omni-present Crocs.
She’s not just another name tag at Topper Jack’s, the bottom step on the ladder of American fast food. Stuffing her face with Doritos, distracted, she runs her ancient Toyota into a deer. She’s late for work – again – and fired for it.
Her gross and profane “exit interview” is the highlight of the movie. Because whatever those riotous opening moments promise – swearing, food abuse – “Tammy” and McCarthy have their sentimental side. This is a rude, crude comedy with a hard candy shell on the outside, soft and squishy on the inside.
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Tammy catches her husband (Nat Faxon) sort-of cheating with a neighbor (Toni Collette) and tosses a fit. She rants to her mom (Allison Janney) and tries to storm out. But she has no money and no car.
Enter Granny, played by Oscar winner Susan Sarandon. Tammy needs a change of scene. Granny has always wanted to see Niagara Falls. And Granny has an old Cadillac and a few thousand dollars saved up. How hard can it be to get from small-town Illinois to the New York/Canadian border? When you’re an idiot with anger-management issues, pretty hard. They stumble south into Missouri, where Tammy lets on she’s never heard of the guy the Mark Twain National Forest is named for. But she has heard of the Allman Brothers, when Granny brags that she used to date one of them (“the dead one”).
Much of the pleasure from “Tammy” derives from Sarandon, decades removed from playing someone this uninhibited, learning to let her hair down from McCarthy – a butchered duet of the Allmans’ “Midnight Rider,” a “most outrageous thing I’ve done” confession contest, lots of drinking.
There are health issues, mean drunk moments, a “lesbian Fourth of July party” (Kathy Bates is Tammy’s hip aunt, with Sandra Oh in the mirthless role of Auntie’s partner), a stick-up, jail time.
It is crowd-pleasing, in its own way. But for a movie that comes out swinging, “Tammy,” in the end, feels like a pulled punch. McCarthy promises a haymaker she never quite delivers.