Joe Swanberg (Happy Christmas) Talks Ben Falcone’s Tammy

I walked to my neighborhood theater to see Tammy last night, excited to finally catch one of Melissa McCarthy’s movies.

I walked to my neighborhood theater to see Tammy last night, excited to finally catch one of Melissa McCarthy’s movies. Despite her recent domination of the studio comedy scene, I’ve managed to miss almost everything she’s done. In fact, the only thing I had seen her in, other than a few minutes of Bridesmaids that I caught on TV, is This is 40, in which Judd Apatow takes what would normally be a small subplot and lets her run completely wild with it, spending what felt to me like a shocking amount of time on scenes of her just riffing. That’s about as big a compliment as I can imagine a filmmaker giving an actor, and I have a great deal of respect for Apatow and his ability to recognize talent, so I was very excited to see her in action again.

A little disclaimer before I go on: I feel uneasy writing publicly about other filmmakers and their work, especially if I’m being critical, because really, who am I? If we’re having a beer, I’ll talk all kinds of shit about movies, but it’s often jealousy, ignorance or some other negative thing that leads to my dislike of someone or their work, and that’s best left at the bar, far away from the permanence of the Internet.

I used to spend a good deal of time writing about films, but that was before I was making them. I longed to have a voice in the film community, so while I was attempting to develop one as a filmmaker, assuming one as a critic or commenter felt like a good stopgap. The more my own work started showing around (and being criticized), the less desire I had to critique anyone else’s.

So with that in mind: This is filmmaker Ben Falcone’s directorial debut, and that, for me, is the best lens through which to approach it critically. Imagine the pressure this guy is under his first time out of the gate. McCarthy’s sudden star power means that not only does Falcone have access to more money than most first-time filmmakers (I believe $20 million, which, jeez, seems like a lot to me,) but he also knows that there will be a major marketing campaign and a lot of expectations for this to succeed.

I managed to slip mostly under the radar for my first bunch of films, and was able to figure some things out personally and professionally before I felt like anyone was really paying attention. And even then it felt like a lot of pressure and a lot of sudden criticism. This guy is jumping into the white-hot center of the 4th of July weekend with his first movie, so it feels worth taking a moment to congratulate him before I go any further. Nice work, man. I can’t even imagine.

What he and McCarthy, his co-writer and producer on the project (and also his wife), choose to do is very interesting. They focus on a poor, obese, uneducated white woman (our country is full of them, but when do we ever see them on screen at the multiplex?) named Tammy, who is constantly being dealt a bad hand, or at least that’s how she feels about it. McCarthy plays her with compassion, occasionally making jokes at her expense, but usually reminding us that she hasn’t had great relationships or role models to shape her. By the end of the film, the lesson seems to be that Tammy’s life is always going to be shitty if she blames other people for her problems and that if she buckles down and works her ass off, things will get better.

In the America I experience, it’s more complicated than that, and the movie seems to know that, then forget it. We see sharp observations about poverty and desperation, as Tammy struggles again and again to leave her situation behind, only to come crawling back, then we’re left with a hollow message about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. But Tammy is a 4th of July movie and the poster commands you to “Declare Your Independence,” so USA! USA! USA!

And I’m not so down on the USA. In fact, I’m very excited that we can change the things about our country that suck. It takes way longer than it should, but we seem to be making some steady progress despite occasional steps backwards. And movies like Tammy are a sign of the progress that women are making in the movies, if not the broader culture.

Susan Sarandon’s character, Pearl, for instance, is the kind of alcoholic horndog that we’ve seen guys like Rip Torn play a million times, but I can’t recall a grandma character quite like this. Her old age hasn’t turned her into a wise saint. She still has the same issues she had when she was younger, but the people around her are less forgiving and more confused because movies have taught them, just like they have taught us, that old people are supposed to be altruistic and chaste. Nobody has a hard time imagining that Susan Sarandon, who is 67, likes to drink and fuck guys. But putting her in a movie with gray hair and orthopedic sandals is supposed to suck all of the mischief and sex drive out of her. The movie has fun subverting your expectations without turning her into a rapping granny or anything obnoxious like that.

Kathy Bates is also great as Pearl’s lesbian friend, Lenore, who became wealthy as a pet-store owner (22 locations), but still has her punk rock, political activist roots firmly intact. Seeing these powerful women on screen with McCarthy made me wish that the movie could drop some of its standard rom-com subplots and charge into Pedro Almodóvar territory or something crazy like that. Falcone and McCarthy clearly have a desire to fuck with the system, but even the most exciting stuff in this movie feels safe and a little boring.

Speaking of safe and boring, but still kind of exciting, let me take a minute to talk about McCarthy’s romantic subplot with Mark Duplass. The powerful woman vibe of the movie, which is its greatest strength, is undercut by throwing in a male love interest to validate Tammy, but I still got a kind of electric thrill out of seeing the roles reversed on this standard Hollywood fluff. Duplass is playing exactly the kind of cute, sensitive, perfect character that a million talented women have played opposite guys like Eddie Murphy, Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, Vince Vaughn, etc.

And finally, in this context, it makes perfect sense why you can practically hear the women in a movie theater roll their eyes when this character shows up. It makes NO SENSE! Melissa McCarthy is smart, funny, successful and generally seems cool as hell. It makes perfect sense why men are attracted to her. But her character, Tammy, is a total fuckup with none of McCarthy’s positive qualities other than perhaps her fun, manic energy. She doesn’t know who Mark Twain or Neil Armstrong are, she has no plan for her life after getting fired from her fast-food job, she has a terrible relationship with her family, and she’s married. Why is Duplass’ character chasing her around after their horrific initial encounter?

Yet we watch Bridgette Wilson fall in love with the childish Billy Madison? Courteney Cox, playing the Miami Dolphins’ press officer, can’t resist Ace Ventura, an obnoxious pet detective who literally talks out of his ass? Jada Pinkett is in love with the Nutty Professor?

So of course these scenes fall flat, despite the fact that Duplass and McCarthy are both great actors, because the motivations are ludicrous. But I still loved the opportunity to revel in the ludicrousness from the other side. It felt like McCarthy saying, “I’ve had to sit there my whole life and watch a bunch of sexy women make googly eyes at fuckups and goobers, so now you have to watch sexy guys fall inexplicably in love with the fuckups I want to play.”

And this kind of simultaneous excitement and boredom is how I felt about most of Tammy. Every time it got a bit of spirited, rebellious momentum going, it seemed to fall back on basic movie clichés and grind to a halt.

I still think you should go see it. The people involved are talented (the cinematography and production design are especially interesting for a movie like this) and there are some great performances. Beyond that, the team of McCarthy and Falcone seem worth supporting. I think they have great movies in them, and I hope the next time out they abandon the formula and run wild.

Joe Swanberg has directed many acclaimed feature films and web shows, including Hannah Takes The Stairs, Alexander the Last, Drinking Buddies, Happy Christmas and the series Young American Bodies. He also co-directed and acted in the breakout horror film V/H/S. His films have premiered at Sundance, Berlin and SXSW and regularly appear on TV and in film festivals and theaters around the world.