It’s impossible not to smile at Melissa McCarthy. Her persona—loud, profane and boisterous, with a deft touch for physical comedy—has been well-honed since her breakout, Oscar-nominated turn in “Bridesmaids.” She was loads of fun playing off Sandra Bullock’s stiff character in the better-than-it-should-have-been “The Heat.” Her two “Saturday Night Live” hosting gigs provided that moribund show with the biggest jolt of life they’ve had since Sarah Palin was in the public consciousness (this is still one of the best sketches the show’s ever done). Incredibly, she even managed to squeeze laughs out of the shoulda-been-better (and all-time lazily titled) “Identity Thief.” Of all the stars in the modern comedic universe, hers gives off the biggest, warmest glow.
“Tammy” follows the road-movie map of “Identity Thief,” but it’s a significant improvement on the earlier film. The titular character is a sad sack of a woman as the tale begins. Her Corolla—with a boom box on the passenger seat serving as her car radio—is demolished by a resilient deer. She gets fired from her dead-end, burger-flipping job at a greasy chain called Topper Jack’s by her boorish, sweaty boss (Ben Falcone). The day’s capped off when she goes home to find her husband (Nat Faxon) at a romantic dinner with her neighbor (Toni Collette), sending her screaming out of her house and into the somewhat-comforting arms of her uptight mother (Allison Janney) and alcoholic grandmother, Pearl (Susan Sarandon). That’s a bad day of Daniel Powter-like heights.
Tammy and Pearl don’t have the greatest relationship—the hints at their unhappy history are doled out in nuggets across the film before a devastating blowup—but they’re both frustrated with their current lots, and a booze-fueled road trip seems to suit them both fine. The husband-and-wife team of Falcone and McCarthy wrote the screenplay, and they wisely give a lot of room for Sarandon to work her magic. Pounding beer after beer and shot after shot and popping pill after pill, she’s looser and funnier than she’s ever been in her career.
That script from McCarthy and Falcone doesn’t do anything groundbreaking. It’s not a classic, but it’s spirited and it’s fun, and Falcone’s first-time direction is more assured and confident than most other rookies. “Tammy” mostly hits all of the beats every road trip movie ever has, everything from “National Lampoon’s Vacation” to … well, “Road Trip.” The grandmother-granddaughter combination go have fun for a bit, with Tammy screaming around a lake on a jet ski and Pearl telling ribald stories of an adventurous past as an Allman Brothers groupie (their sing-along to “Midnight Rider” should be a YouTube staple for years). They beat the hell out of their car after a drunken night out. They even have a combined meet-cute at a barbecue restaurant with a couple of love interests, a randy middle-aged man (Gary Cole) for Pearl, and a scruffy, sweet charmer (Mark Duplass) for Tammy. There’s the desperate foray into crime (think of Chevy Chase taking John Candy, the Wally World security guard, hostage), as a cash-strapped Tammy holds up a Topper Jack’s franchise.
Best of all, there’s Wes Anderson-like parade of talent popping up throughout the movie, all of them hitting on just the right comedic note. Kathy Bates, in particular, has a delightful role as Tammy’s lesbian, pet-store magnate aunt; she has a ton of fun playing next to her fellow Oscar-winner Sarandon, and even invigorates the usually-thankless job of delivering a tough-love speech to the central character. Duplass, hero of the mumblecore filmmaking movement and slacker star of FX’s The League, makes for an appealing romantic lead, and Cole, part of Veep’s magic, is hysterically shameless. Dan Aykroyd shows up for a little extended cameo as Tammy’s gruff father. Sarah Baker, another talented comedic actress right on the verge of breaking out (she had one of the most talked-about scenes in recent television history in this season’s “Louie”) has a marvelous, deadpan scene as an employee in the Topper Jack’s Tammy robs. McCarthy and Falcone are smart enough and good enough filmmakers to jam the movie with pros and let them work, and they throw just enough twists into the formula to keep things interesting—there’s a particularly well-done reveal that sabotages a plot point I was sure would occur, much to the gleeful delight of the theater audience. If you’re an experienced film-goer in the least, you’ll be surprised. You can’t say that for most modern comedies.
By the time that delightful little twist comes along, though, McCarthy already has everyone under her spell. Tooling around on the jet ski, pounding beers with Sarandon, dancing her way across a Topper Jack’s parking lot to the strains of Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” in a T-shirt, Crocs and greasy paper bag over her head, McCarthy’s a bull-in-the-china-shop marvel. Checking her IMDB page, I see that her next film is a team-up with Bill Murray (the finally-made black list script “St. Vincent”), a man who’s made an entire career by carving out an entirely-unique comedic niche. It’s not hard to see McCarthy’s movie-star arc being just as memorable.