‘Tammy’ takes a road trip to nowhere: 2 stars

06/30/2014 2:19 PM

06/30/2014 2:19 PM

Melissa McCarthy’s plus-sized shtick is wearing thin.

What seemed so fresh and funny a few years back via her breakthrough role in “Bridesmaids” has become as paint-by-numbers as stuff by Will Ferrell or Adam Sandler. In “Tammy,” an episodic vanity project co-written with husband Ben Falcone (who also directs), McCarthy again plays a fashion-challenged loner. Again a foul-mouthed malcontent. Again an arrogant punching bag who eventually reveals her softer side.

Dance with who brung ya, as they say.

“Tammy” isn’t a crummy movie, just a familiar, forgettable one. McCarthy and Falcone at least have enough clout to lure some interesting performers into the undercooked mix.

McCarthy plays the title character, a Midwestern fast-food worker whose morning incorporates wrecking her car, getting fired and leaving her philandering husband. Broke and without transportation, Tammy turns to her grandmother, Pearl (Susan Sarandon). Though Pearl is a flirtatious alcoholic, she’s got a car, $6,700 in cash and a burning desire to see Niagara Falls.

So the pair hit the road. And that’s about the extent of the plot, which feels like an improv exercise turned into a feature-length comedy. It’s sporadically amusing because McCarthy is fundamentally funny.

She also understands how to play off an Oscar-winning co-star (as she did with Sandra Bullock in “The Heat”). Sarandon will no doubt be lauded for portraying an “elderly” character. But the truth is she’s still as sexy and magnetic here as in other signature roles. The pair’s comfy way of interacting doesn’t merely sound like setup/punch line. This helps sell exchanges such as when Tammy confesses she used to cheat on her husband with the ice cream man.

Pearl: “You didn’t do it for the free ice cream, did you?”

Tammy: “Not at first.”

They work hard to make their grandma/granddaughter relationship credible, despite the ages and physical resemblances being so off. Throw in Allison Janney as Tammy’s mom, and it doesn’t take a trip to IMDB.com to realize a 67-year-old probably wouldn’t have a 54-year-old daughter and a 43-year-old granddaughter.

That’s one of the many problems with “Tammy,” a movie more interested in utilizing recognizable stars than making realistic casting choices. How else to explain the extended walk-on roles handed to performers capable of carrying their own movies? Toni Collette does almost nothing as the woman cheating with Tammy’s husband (Nat Faxon). Sandra Oh barely registers as the lesbian partner of Kathy Bates, who plays Pearl’s wealthy cousin, Lenore.

Oh’s underwritten role is magnified by the sheer oomph Bates puts into a fine performance. During the film’s best scene, her monologue becomes the catalyst for getting Tammy to clean up her act.

There’s always a moment or two like this in McCarthy’s pictures where she lets the audience in a little. As with the standout confessional in the obnoxious comedy “Identity Thief,” in “Tammy” she shares key incidents from her past — with Lenore, Pearl and then a friendly guy (Mark Duplass) she meets in a bar — to justify why she’s such a screw-up.

If ever McCarthy can find the right balance between these brief revelatory scenes and the overloaded gags of her improvising insults and knocking things off shelves in a huff, she might actually make a real movie. Until then, audiences must be content watching her be the weirdo.

Rated R for language including sexual references.

‘TAMMY’

2 stars

Rated R | Time: 1:37

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