Think of Melissa McCarthy playing Megan in Bridesmaids, and you may first remember her defecating in a sink, or driving a minivan full of stolen puppies, or brazenly propositioning an air marshal. McCarthy stole the show with a talent for profanity and pratfalls, but it's a reflective one-on-one scene playing impromptu life coach to Kristen Wiig's character that solidified her star-making performance. For that scene, she dropped the clownish shtick for a real human moment that made Megan into a character, not just a caricature.
Tammy, McCarthy's co-screenwriting debut with her husband, Ben Falcone (who directs for the first time), looks to mine that same dichotomy. McCarthy plays the title role, a slovenly small-town fast-food worker who loses her job, her car, and her husband in the first 10 minutes and spends the rest of the film trying to find some meaning in her broken life with the help of her alcoholic, pill-popping grandma Pearl (Susan Sarandon).
But for the first 20 minutes or so, McCarthy and Falcone seem to have misjudged the best uses of McCarthy's talents to epic proportions. When she turns her performance up to 11, she doesn't just demand the spotlight; she creates her own. That allowed her to steal scenes in Bridesmaids, or work effectively as a duo with Sandra Bullock in last year's The Heat, because there was the constant push and pull of her performance against other strong and contrasting ones.
But the opening scenes of Tammy never challenge her for ownership of center stage. As a result, it's largely just McCarthy swearing and stumbling in a near vacuum, a one-woman standup act about falling down. The supporting characters — Falcone as her weaselly manager, Nat Faxon as her blandly philandering husband, Allison Janney as her anxious, disappointed mother — exist largely to bounce the focus back to her. Delivering a performance that screams for attention when you already have it ends up coming off as a desperate plea for laughs. That's even more true when they go out of their way to make Tammy seem spectacularly dumb just to set up opportunities to cruelly mock her.
The story requires Tammy's life to fall apart so that we can watch her struggle to make a new one, but McCarthy and Falcone wind up also having to put their movie back together after its ill-judged start. To some extent, they do, once Tammy settles into more of an ensemble piece than star showcase. Mark Duplass is the first grounding influence on the film, just as his character, Bobby, helps to pull Tammy back from the brink. Kathy Bates, playing Pearl's rich cousin Lenore, provides much the same kind of support.
There are some surprisingly true notes in unexpected places. Pearl's alcoholism, for instance, drives much of Tammy's need to finally grow up. While it's the catalyst for some funny set pieces — one of the movie's best scenes finds Tammy awkwardly holding up a fast-food joint to bail Grandma out of jail — it's also handled with enough poignancy to avoid reducing Pearl to an old-people-behaving-badly comedy stereotype.
Tammy never quite manages to find that balance between the sweet and the smartass the way Bridesmaids did, nor does the mismatched buddy dynamic between McCarthy and Sarandon ever approach the success of The Heat. But eventually the film does manage to find its own awkward way, with enough effective and less desperate jokes to smooth things over after the rocky start. It's a shakier debut of McCarthy and Falcone's efforts behind the camera than one might have hoped for, but if Tammy can turn things around, surely they can too.