According to a lot of what's been written about her, Melissa McCarthy is a sort of "everywoman," the rare down-to-earth movie star with non-runway looks to whom women can relate. Her latest character, in Tammy, follows the now-familiar McCarthy pattern of crude, rude, sloppy, and reckless.
Co-written by McCarthy and her husband Ben Falcone (who also directed), Tammy is not the best entry in McCarthy's oeuvre. Its flimsy road-trip storyline and rambling jokes rarely call for belly laughs. But it is a fascinating study in the new McCarthyism: the idea that women relate best to a woman who is a hot mess.
Tammy is the sort of character who guns a jet ski directly into a dock with people standing on it, downs a six pack while driving circles in a field, and follows a man to the bathroom assuming he dropped a "hint." She's less educated and less forthright than McCarthy's breakout role as Megan in Bridesmaids. And she's less likely to pistol-whip people than her role in last summer's female buddy-cop movie The Heat. But otherwise, McCarthy continues to hit the same notes all over again, while earning praise for her brave and hilarious portrayal of a woman who definitely does not have it all together.
But is it honest? Or is McCarthy perpetuating another cliché about women: that we are all secretly a disheveled wreck-in-waiting, and that letting it "all hang out" is the only way to be happy?
In this line of logic, every woman sees themselves—at least internally—as a little bit Tammy, so admitting as much is authentic and real. "I think there's a little Tammy in everybody," McCarthy told reporters at the film's premiere, according to The Los Angeles Times. "I think we all know the right choices we need to be making, and every day we don't make all those choices."
McCarthy's appeal to us, then, is wish fulfillment. Her characters are messy, badly dressed, overweight, often uneducated and badly treated, but they are also confident, proactive, unabashed, and ultimately consider themselves, as Tammy does, "pretty great."
This ethos allows for McCarthy's form of humiliation comedy. Even though Tammy opens with its eponymous character singing with a mouth full of chips, dressed in the least flattering outfit possible, and giving mouth-to-mouth (sort of) to a deer, she somehow remains oblivious to and undaunted by her self-image.
But there's an odd tension to this form of comedy that doesn't allow for McCarthy's characters to grow and change: the audience's awareness that Tammy "should" feel self-conscious about the many characteristics of which she's oblivious. This provides most of the easy laughs in the movie, but it gets skittish in its attempts to install pathos because the one-note comedy collapses when Tammy becomes more self-aware.
Tammy does reach a breaking point at which her iron self-confidence appears to waver, but that moment does not drive her outside herself. Instead, Tammy's character arc is more of a circle, so that by the end of the movie she has a new life in a new state that looks much like the one she had at the beginning . . . but at least now she truly seems "happy" in it.