Sunday, July 6, 2014

McCarthyism



Melissa McCarthy's Tammy has a fiddled-with timidity that you can often feel in movies that are trying way too hard to please, that have been manufactured by a committee of executives and creatives who have nothing to prove but that they and their products are successful by design.  Which is very funny because McCarthy's spirit and ascendancy seem to be the exact opposite of the executive/creative merger.  Her major gift is the celebration of freakishness, spliced with empathy and complete abandon.  In Bridesmaids, Identity Thief, and The Heat, and on SNL, she embodies idiocy and  a sort of needy kindness that hasn't really been mined before by other comedians/actors/performance-artists so skillfully and with such richly hilarious results.  She does not "clean up" her performances or make then palatable, and yet they still have a soft center, an attention to detail, and an access point that seems culled through complete and total dedication to making the peripheral central, or in Flannery O'Connor's words (words I always go back to):  the freak becomes a form of essential displacement for all those upstanding self-righteous folks who feel the need to categorize people into freak/non-freak.  We are in that zone of outlandish behavior, obesity, stupidity, etcetera, and yet there is no judgment and no relief.  McCarthy, when she's doing it right, allows us all to occupy that territory as if it is our own, thanks to her unbridled connection and performance.  She takes one-note and spins it into a symphony.

That orchestration is messed with in Tammy, so much so the results are devastatingly awful, not because the character is not worthy of our attention but because McCarthy and her co-writer and husband Ben Falcone have created a story (a road movie) for her to occupy that is so vapid and unoriginal and just plain uninteresting that Tammy becomes a sort of flaccid float in a sad little parade in which everyone else seems so totally normal, bland and un-alive there's nothing to bounce off of.  There is nothing to celebrate.  And the freakishness on display seems to come from some need to please; the first fifteen minutes of this sucker is like a Jerry-Lewis-dumb-ass riff, with McCarthy marching around doing her big-lady-id dance without any partners.  Without that, she comes off as a pariah, which I hope is the exact opposite of McCarthy's moral and artistic intentions. 

Maybe this is one of those be-careful-what-you-wish-for situations.  Tammy I've read was a dream project for McCarthy and Falcone.  The dream maybe was to expand McCarthy's territory more toward Alexander Payne's territory of drama and comedy blissfully and absurdly intersecting in road movies that capture a tenderness beneath chaos, selfishness and torpor.  In Sideways, About Schmidt and this year's Nebraska, Payne explores freakish sad-sack-on-the-lam behavior with a stylishness that underpins the pathos without losing the laughs.  McCarthy and Falcone lose both in almost every scene of their flick, and while Tammy does propel forward with that road-movie conceit (Tammy and her drunk grandma played with pedestrian mousiness by Susan Sarandon flee the scene together in search of Niagara Falls) it's stuck inside a sort of bubble of confusion and nervousness:  please laugh at this sadness and stupidity.  Please. 

June Squibb is the shit.  She plays the bitter, foulmouthed old wife to Bruce Dern's white-trash Don Quixote in Payne's Nebraska, and while the movie isn't solely about her, Squibb takes control through an overstated understatedness.  She does outrageous acts (including showing her bloomers in a graveyard to the tombstone of an old boyfriend, and nonchalantly opining that she's going to stick old Dern in a home if she ever wins a fortune), but she is nestled within a movie that allows her freakishness to bloom into empathy and even a little salvation.  In the end she isn't really heroic, but the old bat does have her say, and she does rescue her husband from all the buzzard relatives who think he's won a million bucks.  Squibb is relentless because she has a world to occupy and the good sense to let it flow and the courage to know that she's on target. 

McCarthy and Falcone may want to watch Nebraska a couple more times before they make another movie.