“Tammy” is something unusual: A congenially terrible comedy. It’s not an insult to the intelligence, like “Identity Thief,” the acrid 2013 Melissa McCarthy misfire. Nor does it showcase McCarthy at her crassly funny best, like “Bridesmaids” or last summer’s “The Heat.” It just plonks down the actress and a handful of stellar co-stars without much in the way of a script, storyline, or actual jokes. Yet you may still come out with a smile on your face. It’s very odd.
The difference, I think, is that “Tammy” is a female-centric slapstick comedy set squarely in the American underclass, and everyone here seems to appreciate the novelty. That definitely includes Susan Sarandon under a gray fright wig as Pearl, the whiskey-soaked grandmother of the title character. Tammy (McCarthy) is an abrasive small town screw-up who we first meet trying to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a deer — a terrific sight gag that sets a bar the rest of the movie only occasionally meets. In short order, she has lost her fast-food job, her car, and her husband (Nat Faxon) to the prim yuppie next door (Toni Collette). What else to do but hit the road to Niagara Falls with grandma? It’s like we’re watching “Thelma and Louise II: Generations.”
If only. “Tammy” is written by McCarthy with her husband Ben Falcone and directed by Falcone in his behind-the-camera debut. (He also turns up as Tammy’s McBoss in the early scenes.) The couple produced the movie, too. Falcone has a lot to learn about shaping a scene for maximum effect, and I’m not sure that what he and McCarthy have written could actually be called a screenplay. Mostly it involves setting up situations for McCarthy to barrel through. Still, there’s a through-line, of sorts, in the character’s slowly claiming responsibility for her lousy life. In its slapdash fashion, “Tammy” is an empowerment comedy.
Of course you might not think so when you’re watching the star with a paper bag over her head trying to rob a restaurant so she can bail granny out of jail. That scene reflects the highs and lows of “Tammy” in miniature: Rich set-up, a lot of improvised spritzing, a gradual loss of energy, and then a weird power-up as Tammy unexpectedly bonds with the cashier (Sarah Baker) over apple pies and hot tubs.
Sarandon’s role is similarly bipolar. Grandma is an alcoholic prone to blackouts and sex with strangers (including Gary Cole as a good old boy with a drinking problem to match Pearl’s), yet the actress looks delighted to be here and her enthusiasm is infectious. By the time “Tammy” has wandered into an all-lesbian Fourth of July celebration hosted by Kathy Bates and Sandra Oh — complete with a Viking funeral for a jet ski — the audience may realize they’re watching something quite special. They just may have no idea what it is.
Where most Hollywood movies only pretend to be interested in the working class, “Tammy” seems made by people who may have actually known what it’s like to get by on minimum wage and drive an underinsured rust bucket. The movie’s sympathy for stressed lives feels honestly observed, as does the pep talk from Bates’s character, a self-made pet food maven, on working hard for what she’s got. In a different movie — maybe even a better one — the arrival of a gentle country boy (Mark Duplass) to woo Tammy might seem like wish-fulfillment overreach. Here it feels strangely earned.
If only “Tammy” were funnier, more structured, less of a mess! But then it might be just another Hollywood formula film. Whereas what’s onscreen is halfway to someplace the movies rarely go.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.