Melissa McCarthy falls victim to her fame in ‘Tammy’

Pearl (Susan Sarandon) and Tammy (Melissa McCarthy) go on a road trip in the comedy “Tammy.”
Pearl (Susan Sarandon) and Tammy (Melissa McCarthy) go on a road trip in the comedy “Tammy.” Photo provided

The temptation of great clowns to become sad clowns must be irresistible, because sooner or later they all fall victim to it. But few have fallen harder and faster than Melissa McCarthy in “Tammy.” Just three years after “Bridesmaids” made her famous, we find her weeping and smiling through tears in a film she produced and co-wrote with her husband, Ben Falcone, who also directed.

But “Tammy” didn’t need a production. It needed an intervention.

Perhaps the problem is that McCarthy has become a star. That’s an odd problem, and a nice problem to have; but McCarthy functions better as a supporting player or as an antagonist, as someone relentless and unchanging that another character has to deal with. To make her the focus of a story inevitably means that she has to undergo some kind of transformation, which means going from insensitive to sensitive, from unaware to self-aware ... and from funny to not funny.

There’s only one genuinely funny scene in “Tammy,” and of course it’s the first. We find McCarthy driving down the road in a beat-up car, dressed in the uniform of a fast-food restaurant, looking clueless, sweaty and vaguely hostile. As soon as we see her face, we get ready for a good time, and a minute later she delivers: Her boss (Falcone) fires her, and she has a tantrum, in which she contaminates the burgers by licking her hands and touching them. “Enjoy the special sauce,” she yells.

But no, that can’t last. The first hint of trouble comes right after the credits, when Tammy finds out that her husband is cheating on her. She starts crying, and we realize that, though we can’t exactly take this seriously, the scene isn’t really being played for laughs, either. The second hint of trouble is no hint at all, but the full blast of bad news. “Tammy” becomes the story of a long road trip by Tammy (McCarthy) and her alcoholic grandmother, played by Susan Sarandon.

As a first-time director, Falcone has trouble maintaining a specific tone. The comic bits don’t fly, and even the road trip’s destination — Niagara Falls — feels arbitrary, with neither interest nor meaning.

What makes the Grandma-Tammy pairing so unfortunate is that, within this structure, Sarandon is the zany and McCarthy is the straight man. Surely, McCarthy and Falcone had to have realized this when they were writing it. So why didn’t they just tear up the screenplay and start over again? Perhaps they were too busy thinking up more scenes in which someone tells Tammy how wonderful she is.