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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.
Drawing on McCarthy's real-life experience, Tammy lives in a small Illinois town with her husband (Nat Faxon)—who cheats on her with a skinny woman (Toni Collette)—three houses down from her parents (Allison Janney and Dan Aykroyd) and grandmother (Susan Sarandon, using most of her acting chops to play up the "grandma" characteristics, like frequently re-applying red lipstick and tottering on swollen ankles). One gets the impression that all of McCarthy's funny friends wanted to be in her movie, even though they don't have much to do in it. Even Kathy Bates appears, playing a lesbian relative who tells Tammy she worked "hard" to have her apparently idyllic and quirk-filled life. The best addition to the cast is Gary Cole, playing a lascivious flame for Grandma Pearl.
Once Tammy and Pearl hit the road—headed to Niagara Falls by way of Missouri—the movie is a series of stop-and-go interludes, some of which are funnier than others and none of which (despite the movie's fumbling attempts at genuine emotion) are heart-warming. Capers include the aforementioned drunk driving, picking up men at a bar, robbing a fast food restaurant, celebrating "lesbian Fourth of July," and a fight with two underage drinkers. These episodes string together connected by little more than the dynamic duo having them.
The movie might have benefited taking more influence from Thelma and Louise, Sarandon's most famous movie involving a female road trip duo. Instead, the stakes remain low and have something to do with Tammy's need to stop being a "quitter" afraid of leaving her small town.
But it remains unclear whether the movie believes Tammy actually needs to learn a lesson. She bonds with her grandmother over sharing secrets and wreaking mayhem—most of it legitimately dangerous—and that pattern leads directly to her making new friends and the romantic pursuit of a nice guy who likes her for being herself. These sound like traditional indications of (female) success, and she only has to be slightly less self-destructive to have them.
The real lesson of the movie is not for Tammy but for the audience: that it doesn't matter whether Tammy is working toward something; that she should be accepted as she is. This seems designed as a form of wish fulfillment for women that is equally as unrealistic as the more common cliché that women should be movie screen perfection.
Tammy tries to have it both ways on the funny and heart-warming by skirting hard lessons about the necessity of hard work to living the dream and Grandma's alcoholism (in a funny-horrible scene that unleashes McCarthy's ability to sob convincingly). It touches on the consequences of Tammy's worst actions and allows her to admit her broken marriage was not "all" her husband's fault, but never allows Tammy to become mildly competent at anything.
When we look at Tammy as an example of a broader theme—that women don't really have it all together—this is problematic. The McCarthyism that women are basically an inherent mess doesn't leave much room for accomplishment.
The beauty of McCarthy's character in Bridesmaids is that she was both: ultra competent at the things she cared about, but unconcerned by the expectations of competence in more traditional areas. Ever since then, McCarthy has played a diminished version of the same character until, in Tammy, she's not even good at the drunk-driving, bank-robbing, hamburger-throwing skills the film boldly showcases.
Women are better off rejecting the idea that happiness requires only acceptance of our mess. Such logic idealizes blindness: to our faults, to room for change, the needs of other people, and goals beyond the physical.
Tammy is rated R for consistent use of strong language and sexual references that include several frank discussions of sexual activities and an extended sequence in a car where two characters narrate their interaction as "first base" and "second base." A male and a female character spend the night together in a hotel room; sex is implied though not shown. Later, a character makes a lewd gesture with a stalk of celery while referring to the scene. Multiple characters engage in extramarital sex (off screen) and discuss it with others. One character flashes her boobs to a crowd (shown from the back). Several characters flip off others. There is an ongoing plotline involving lesbians, including an extended party scene. Grandma Pearl is an alcoholic who drinks from clearly labeled bottles in almost every scene. Two characters drive while drunk. Two underage teenagers attempt to obtain beer. A character also pretends to rob several people at gunpoint (without a real gun).