Say this for Melissa McCarthy: A couple of years into her stardom, and not all that far past the dust-up over critics' deriding her comic reliance on the sight gag that is her physique, she puts it all out there in the opening moments of “Tammy,” a star vehicle that she co-wrote for herself.
From the moment we meet her, Tammy is a slovenly, morbidly obese vulgarian, from the top of her home-dye-job mop to the bottom of her omnipresent Crocs.
She's not just another nametag at Topper Jack's, the bottom step on the ladder of American fast food. Stuffing her face with Doritos, distracted, she runs her ancient Toyota into a deer. She's late for work — again — and fired for it.
Her gross and profane “exit interview” is the highlight of the movie. Because whatever those riotous opening moments promise — swearing, food abuse — “Tammy” and McCarthy have their sentimental side. This is a rude, crude comedy with a hard candy shell on the outside, soft and squishy on the inside.
Tammy catches her husband (Nat Faxon) sort of cheating with a neighbor (Toni Collette) and tosses a fit. She rants to her mom (Allison Janney), and tries to storm out. But she has no money and no car.
Enter Granny, played by Oscar winner Susan Sarandon. Tammy needs a change of scene. Granny has always wanted to see Niagara Falls. And Granny has an old Cadillac and a few thousand dollars saved up. How hard can it be to get from small-town Illinois to the New York-Canada border? When you're an idiot with anger-management issues, pretty hard.
They stumble south into Missouri, where Tammy lets on she's never heard of the guy the Mark Twain National Forest is named for. But she has heard of the Allman Brothers. Granny brags she used to date one of them (“the dead one”).
Much of the pleasure from “Tammy” derives from Sarandon, decades removed from playing someone this uninhibited, learning from McCarthy to let her hair down: a butchered duet of the Allmans' “Midnight Rider,” a “most outrageous thing I've done” confession contest, lots of drinking.
Tammy drinks and drives. And Granny washes her pills down with cheap bourbon, so Tammy's got nothing on her in terms of “outrageous.”
The joy of McCarthy's comedy is the way she ignores the fact that she's as wide as she is tall, even if we can't. She's cocky about her sexuality. Hit a bar, a barbecue joint, she thinks she owns it. “I can get ANY guy in this room.”
When Granny Pearl is pursued by a randy farmer (Gary Cole), Tammy figures the farmer's son (Mark Duplass) should be a pushover. Not so fast. Indie screenwriter/actor Duplass has a deer-in-the-headlights look about him opposite McCarthy, which undercuts the chemistry the script insists they have.
All Tammy has to do is lose the “ugly inside” and he'll see the real her, right? And maybe ignore the stupidity that's as obvious as every sentence she utters.
“I'm kinda like a Cheeto,” she purrs. “Ya can't eat just one.”
That's Lay's potato chips.
“Noooo. Me? I love a Cheeto!”
There are health issues, mean drunk moments, a “lesbian Fourth of July party” (Kathy Bates is Tammy's hip aunt, with Sandra Oh in the role of Auntie's partner), a stick-up, jail time.
All packed into a movie that's more sentimental than sloppy silly. Because we all just want to be loved, deep down, right? Especially the more outrageous among us.
It is crowd-pleasing, in its own way, mixing girth gags and slapstick with clueless come-ons.
But for a movie that comes out swinging, “Tammy,” in the end, feels like a pulled punch. McCarthy promises a haymaker she never quite delivers.