Film review: the troubles and triumphs of Tammy

The critics are divided and no one seems to know what to think about Melissa McCarthy's latest film Tammy.

Susan Sarandon, left, and Melissa McCarthy in a scene from Tammy. AP Photo / Warner Bros Pictures, Michael Tackett
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Time magazine called it "a little comedy that flops in big ways". The New York Observer went further, saying Melissa McCarthy's first movie as a proper leading lady was "as funny as a liver transplant". With even the most supportive ­reviews suggesting her latest film, Tammy, is a "watchable mishap", it's fair to say McCarthy is unlikely to be troubling the Oscars next year.

It's certainly been a strange time for the 43-year-old actress, who shot to fame in television series such as Gilmore Girls and Mike & Molly. Revelling in the acclaim for the smash-hit romcom Bridesmaids, for which she deservedly earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination, she sat down with her husband Ben Falcone and co-wrote, produced and stars in Tammy, a light-hearted road movie of sorts in which the titular character escapes small-town drudgery (and her cheating husband) by going on an adventure with her grandma. The fact that this is Susan Sarandon in a grey wig would appear to be the least of this odd film's problems – there is barely any story arc other than they drive aimlessly about middle America and it's ­Independence Day.

And yet, for all the headlines revelling in the kicking Tammy has been receiving – "Melissa McCarthy's comedy Tammy is slammed by critics as deplorable and pointless," trumpeted the Daily Mail – scratch the surface and something really quite remarkable is revealed. When Mark Kermode in The Observer and Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian talk of a film that "deserves to be both applauded and embraced", it's time to pause and reflect. And what's this? FilmSlate magazine says ­McCarthy and Sarandon have "terrific comic chemistry".

The extent to which Tammy has divided the critics is fascinating, but such polarisation of opinion makes some kind of sense. The cast – there are also cameos from Toni Collette, Kathy Bates and Dan Aykroyd – brings with it so much goodwill, some critics (and perhaps those of a certain age) have certainly been predisposed to like it. McCarthy's rise to Hollywood stardom is genuinely worth celebrating, too, given its usual aversion to anything other than stick-thin, compliant female leads. Indeed, Vanity Fair says as much. "It's hard to bear any ill will toward this peculiar movie," writes Richard Lawson. "It's a pretty weird movie ... I don't know that it will work out for them, but I admire the trying."

The negativity surrounding the film has certainly had an impact, however – the solitary evening showing at which The National was present attracted precisely five people. The first thing to say is that not one of them laughed, once. Not, perhaps, much of a surprise when the single memorable "joke" arrives when Tammy confuses Neil Armstrong, the man who walked on the moon, with Lance Armstrong, the disgraced professional cyclist. Dire stuff.

There’s also a painfully unfunny and overlong hold-up of a fast-food joint and, perhaps more troublingly, McCarthy initially plays Tammy as simultaneously unattractive and a bit simple. Sarandon, meanwhile, escapes any brickbats that might have come her way by playing a drunk who gets nastier and more selfish the more she puts away.

Did McCarthy and Falcone realise they were on bumpy ground with Tammy halfway through? It's a speculative conclusion, but easy to come to when the film's last 30 minutes are such a step-change from that which has gone before. There's not even an attempt at a wisecrack – instead, McCarthy wrings every last piece of heart-felt emotion from the script as Tammy comes to some sort of self-­realisation about the person she is and wants to become. It's these last sections that just about save the film, although it rapidly descends into soapy, Dawson's Creek-style "messages" about living your life despite what it might throw at you, while people stare bleakly out from waterside terraces. Not so much of a surprise, given both were filmed in Wilmington, North Carolina.

The issue, then, is that it's nowhere near funny enough to be a comedy and not remotely convincing as a drama. But that doesn't make Tammy unremittingly terrible – it's not as appalling as another post-Bridesmaids movie, The Other Woman, for example. Nor, however, does it reach any level of being "so bad it's good" – as "comedies" go, that's an award surely currently held by Adam Sandler's risible Jack And Jill.

Still, the last laugh is with New Line Cinema. The budget for Tammy was US$20 million (Dh73.46m) – and goodness, can you tell. To date it has grossed $80.1m (Dh294m), and given that the general rule of thumb is that a film starts moving into the black when it makes two and a half times its budget, New Line is certainly in the money. Watch out New York Observer, Time magazine and Daily Mail: Tammy 2 could be on the way.

Tammy is out now in UAE cinemas