Everyone hates Tammy.
The new Melissa McCarthy movie has already been panned far and wide: There's a no-star review from the Washington Post ("a misbegotten movie that starts badly and ends worse"), a scathing assessment in Time ("In film schools of the future, professors will teach Tammy as an object lesson in Making Everything Go Wrong"), and a highbrow takedown from the New Yorker ("though I’m honor-bound to report that Tammy is not a very funny comedy, it’s worth adding that, in substance, it’s hardly a comedy at all"), among others.
But I'm here to stand up for Tammy, which was written by McCarthy and her husband, Ben Falcone, and directed by Falcone. Not because it's a cinematic masterpiece—it's not. But because, three years after McCarthy broke out on the big screen in Bridesmaids, she's still a sui generis—revolutionary, even—Hollywood presence. And because it's a solid entry into the notoriously underrepresented genre of female road movies. And, finally, because Tammy takes all the concern-trolling that's surrounded Melissa McCarthy's stardom since 2011 and shoves it back in the faces of critics, fat-shamers, and women-aren't-funny Internet mainstays. Bella Abzug famously said that women will know they've achieved parity when a "woman schlemiel" gets promoted as quickly as her male-schlemiel counterpart. Well, in Hollywood terms, that parity may have arrived with this not-super-great movie about a schlubby woman that can easily stand behind a DVR's worth of not-great-at-all movies about schlubby men. The difference is, of course, that this one will be scrutinized far more thoroughly.
Like many a shaggy-dog comedic hero before her, from Stripes's John Winger to Old School's Mitch, Tammy's in the process of losing everything when we first meet her—her car, her job, her husband. (In a twist on the cliché of walking in on adulterous sex, she walks in on her spouse serving dinner to their mousy-cute neighbor.) When she storms two doors down, to her mother's house, and announces she's taking her grandmother's car and leaving her small Illinois town, grandma (a bewigged Susan Sarandon) suddenly appears with bags packed, demanding to come along. They head to Niagara Falls to cross an entry off Granny's bucket list, but quickly get stranded in Kentucky. And while shenanigans—jet-ski destruction, geriatric public sex, robbery, and more—ensue, the storyline undergirding the hijinks is a darker and more discomfiting mix of sadness, loss, and squandered potential.
The cast is wonderful, if occasionally wasted. Toni Collette, as Mr. Tammy's side piece, could have been played by anyone; Alison Janney and Dan Ackroyd, as Tammy's parents, get little more than a few grimaces in; and Sandra Oh, as a free-spirited lesbian, is basically a hanger for flowing maxidresses. But Sarandon, as grandma Pearl, lights up every frame (and not just because she's way too young to be playing McCarthy's grandmother, to say nothing of Janney's mother). In this summer, the 20th-anniversary of Thelma and Louise, Sarandon's essaying of another feisty small-town escapee is a canny little wink, and she plays the hell out of it.
In Tammy's less bombastic moments, it's an oddly sweet movie about the often unfixable knots of human interaction. But the bombastic moments, of course, are the ones that define the movie: Tammy careening a jet ski around a lake, Tammy coming on way too strong to the son of her grandma's new man friend, Tammy crumpling a paper bag into the shape of a gun and swaggering up to a fast-food restaurant to the tune of "Thrift Shop." As with her characters in Bridesmiads and The Heat, McCarthy imbues Tammy with a confidence that's fascinating prescisely because overwieght women aren't supposed to have it—sure, her ends are fried, her face is sunburned, and her shirts look like they were bought with loose change at a Laundromat sale, but she doesn't want to disappear. Someday, I hope, someone will be able to write an article about Melissa McCarthy's acting career without mentioning her weight. But that day is not today, and that someone is not me, because the fact is that when a character has literal weight, and the actor uses her own with such unseen precision and gleeful abandon, it shouldn't be ignored.
In Tammy, context matters. When it takes the character a few tries to successfully scale the counter of the fast-food joint she's attempting to rob, when she demands a stack of pies with the register money, when she admits that her addiction to Klondike bars led to a few shameful trysts with the pervy ice-cream man—these do undoubtedly play into an accepted, tired canon of fat jokes. In other films, sight gags like these have made McCarthy the literal butt of more than a few crude jokes. (Remember Rex Reed calling her "cacaphonous" and "a female hippo"?) In this one, McCarthy wrote the the jokes herself. Does the fact that they're her choice lessen the impact? What does it mean when an actor has the industry juice to write and star in her own movie, attract a passel of Oscar winners and nominees to costar, and yet has no interest in making herself look good?
Put the pies in the bag. Get it? Because I'm fat. Pies.
The tenor of most of Tammy's bad reviews is, overall, one of concern. Writers like WaPo's Ann Hornaday and Time's Richard Corliss worry that McCarthy lacks range, that she keeps going back to the well of the bumbling-and-profane walking disasters that she played in Bridesmaids and Identity Thief and The Heat. But where were these folks when McCarthy was playing sweet-natured fussbudget Sookie on Gilmore Girls for seven seasons, or the utterly anodyne Molly on Mike and Molly? The idea that a woman might actually enjoy playing the kinds of roles McCarthy relishes, that revel in physical comedy—and yes, in sight gags related to fatness—seems to be an affront to folks who, despite condemnning asshats like Rex Reed, deep down believe that McCarthy could perhaps transcend her size if she would only play things a little more genteel. She can be fat, they seem to be saying, but just maybe not, you know... act fat.
This in itself isn't a gendered criticism (after all, Chris Farley wore on plenty of critics' and viewers' nerves with his indistinguishable body of body-focused work), but there is an element of sexism in, for instance, the New York Times's assertion that Tammy's abundance of size-focused jokes "suggest that Ms. McCarthy, and perhaps her collaborators, haven't yet found a way for her to be completely comfortable in her own skin on screen," not to mention the title of Crushable's piece "Melissa McCarthy Wastes All Of Tammy Reminding You That She's Fat." Why is it impossible to imagine that McCarthy simply wants to capitalize on an onscreen persona that audiences have already shown they love? Would it be so terrible if the next John Candy happened to be a woman?
In panning Tammy for SF Gate, the thoughtful critic Mick LaSalle muses that "McCarthy functions better as a supporting player or as an antagonist, as someone relentless and unchanging that another character has to deal with." It's worthwhile to wonder if the idea of an unchanging female lead character, resistant to the transformations required of women both fictional and real, is what has these critics stuck. For so long, we've expected makeover narratives and personal-growth realizations from women on screen, and in Tammy, we get a character—and her creator—patently uninterested in most of that journey. For Hollywood, that's radical—and to me, it's enough to tell you to ignore the critics and give it a shot.
Related Reading: A Brief History of "Women Aren't Funny."
Andi Zeisler is Bitch's editorial and creative director.