In the opening sequence of this strange, conflicted road movie about self-discovery and family dysfunction, Tammy (Melissa McCarthy) gets fired from her job at a fast food joint and then discovers her husband (Nat Faxon) making a romantic meal for their neighbor (a nearly silent Toni Collette). That means it's time to hit the road and escape.
But how did Tammy get to that spot? Why is she 40, unskilled, constantly disheveled and coarse? It’s a variation on a character that McCarthy has honed over the years, one she does well, the loose cannon exploding onto the scene in ways that women are usually expected to leave to comedy’s reliable pool of gross-out dudes and man-children. But the script – by McCarthy and husband Ben Falcone, who also directs – doesn’t really show us more than the outward manifestation of Tammy's internal discomfort. Instead, we're told the kinda-sorta reasons for her ill-mannered behavior over the course of a long car drive to Niagara Falls with her alcoholic, diabetic grandmother (Susan Sarandon, unconvincingly young-old in gray wig and edema-swollen feet). It turns out that Tammy has always felt unloved and abandoned by her family, especially by Grandma. So that's... almost something.
The sketchy, half-explanatory family revelations are dropped here and there, seemingly at random, in between the usual unusual set pieces popping up in the womens' path like stations of the Sundance Film Festival Character-Driven Comedy Cross: jail, seedy motels, robberies, property destruction, lesbian 4th of July parties hosted by Kathy Bates, and offbeat and out-of-the-blue love interests (Gary Cole for Sarandon, Mark Duplass for McCarthy). At one point, McCarthy explains to Duplass that it's human nature to “lean in and smell it” when presented with something certain to be unpleasant. But it’s a point of view the film forgets along the way.
Tammy’s visual language comes from family sitcoms like McCarthy’s CBS hit Mike and Molly. Everything around her is clean and bright, all the better to spotlight her initially grody exterior. She hurls objects when frustrated, usually soiling them with herself, spitting and rubbing her dirty hair on whatever's about to be angrily thrown. She can sleep soundly on the ground and walk through her day with a bloody nose. She’s a grown-up Garbage Pail Kid and seems to like it that way. McCarthy is at her funniest and most energetic in these scenes of futile rebellion. She forces you to lean in and smell it.
But journeys of redemption involve contrition: a change of clothes, a shower, ironed hair. And in a disappointing turn of events, the moment Tammy renews her commitment to living among other human beings, she becomes quiet and unsure, easily pushed to tears, while her story finds itself in desperate need of kind-hearted resolution.
And that's where it loses the map. The film sets up a complex mess, hinting that it may refuse to be the kind of narrative that needs cheap hugs and an easy tidying up for characters who've allegedly spent their lives in emotional turmoil, anti-social behavior and addiction. And then it refuses the refusal, torn between mass appeal and the ugly discomfort of daring comedy. You can see it coming down the road, determined to be as boring and tame as it needs to be to win everyone's affection. So yeah, Tammy cleans up well. But is that what anyone really wants?