Susan Sarandon starred in arguably one of the best female buddy movies of all time: Thelma & Louise (1991), directed by Ridley Scott. With Geena Davis’s Thelma at her side, they were women on a mission (albeit to evade authorities), empowered with each passing mile. Unfortunately, Sarandon’s latest road trip flick, Tammy, with Melissa McCarthy in the titular role, travels in the exact opposite direction. For the most part, their characters—with Sarandon playing McCarthy’s grandmother—are aimless and without purpose, much like the movie itself.
The film opens with Tammy’s hot mess of a day: She hits a deer with her car on her way to work at the local Topper Jack’s fast-food restaurant. After attempting to give the deer mouth-to-mouth (one of the film’s funnier moments), she’s late for work again and is promptly fired by her creepy boss, played by the film’s director and McCarthy’s real-life husband, Ben Falcone. After exiting Topper Jack’s with a flourish—involving dandruff, saliva and food—Tammy finds her husband (Nat Faxon) and her neighbor (Toni Collette) in the middle of a romantic dinner at home.
She storms off and does what any self-respecting, 40-year-old going-on-14 would do: Knocks on mom’s door to borrow a car. Tammy wants to leave her troubles and the town behind, but Mom (Allison Janney) refuses to help, knowing her daughter’s modus operandi. Hard-partying grandma Pearl (Sarandon), on the other hand, forces Tammy to take her on a roadtrip: She has the cash, wheels and the desire to re-sow her wild oats. This miscasting of Tammy’s immediate family highlights one of the film’s first stumbling blocks. Of course, no one can dispute Sarandon’s and Janney’s acting skills, and what they do with the thin material is admirable, but Janney as McCarthy’s mother—an 11-year-age difference—and Sarandon as Janney’s mother—a 13-year difference—are a bit of a stretch and even distracting for the audience.
Tammy and Pearl hit the road without a plan, place or endgame in mind, which is never a good sign for a film, let alone a road trip movie. Pearl picks Niagara Falls because that’s where her father promised to take her as a little girl, but never did. It’s a good reason as any to jump-start Tammy’s plot, so we follow the twosome’s misadventures on the road, which includes drinking and driving (because that’s pure comedy, right?), sleeping in the car, getting in jet ski accidents and flirting with men in bars.
Two of the men they meet in a Louisville BBQ joint are father and son farmers Earl (Gary Cole) and Bobby (Mark Duplass). While Earl and Pearl heat up the motel room, they force Tammy outside to sleep in the doorway. When Bobby finds her the next morning, he takes pity on her and begins to see last night’s loud and obnoxious Tammy in a different light.
Just when Tammy finally finds a romantic story arc to follow through, McCarthy and Falcone, who co-wrote the script together, introduce other divergent subplots, from Pearl getting busted for Oxycontin, to Tammy robbing a Topper Jack’s in order to bail her grandmother out of jail, to a lesbian Fourth of July bash. There are also weird undercurrents that touch on Pearl’s issues with diabetes and raging alcoholism.
Despite McCarthy’s likability as an actor, she can’t will an audience to like Tammy, who’s an annoying and unintelligent hick, unattractive on the inside and out. (They consciously made McCarthy look as unglamorous as possible in order to emphasize her holistic “transformation” later in the film.) Compared to McCarthy’s breakout Bridesmaids character, Megan, who was loud, but confident and self-assured, Tammy comes off as whiny, insecure and only mildly entertaining.
Falcone’s feature debut as a director is passable, but some of the establishing shots and the action sequences are reminiscent of standard sitcom fare. A few zingers and barbed scenes between Sarandon and McCarthy save the film from being a total loss. But when they’re sharing sex stories about Duane Allman, singing “Midnight Rider,” or wearing greasy fast food bags on their heads to hide their identities, Tammy feels more like a patchwork of sketch comedy scenes, with an all-star cast brought in to shore up the material as much as they can.
The latter half of the film alone introduces Kathy Bates as Pearl’s lesbian cousin, Lenore, Sandra Oh as Lenore’s wife, Suzanne, and Dan Aykroyd in bit part at the end as Tammy’s father. Despite the names involved, many of these supporting roles are only steps above cameos; they’re characters without depth or dimension. Both Tammy’s cheating husband and new boyfriend Bobby are milquetoasts, and the actors don’t have much to do except react to Tammy’s craziness.
While we wanted to root for Tammy and Bobby, there was no palpable onscreen chemistry between McCarthy and Duplass to help the cause. The final scene is as Hollywood as possible, with Tammy and Pearl eventually making it to Niagara Falls, and Bobby happening to pop in for a kiss in the falls’ mist—making us all the more wistful for that Thelma and Louise ending.
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.
Director: Ben Falcone
Writers: Melissa McCarthy, Ben Falcone
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates, Allison Janney, Dan Aykroyd, Mark Duplass, Gary Cole, Nate Faxon, Toni Collette, Ben Falcone
Release Date: July 2. 2014