Rarely do we get the chance in mainstream multiplex fare to ask the question, so let’s do so here: What name would we give an inverted Bechdel Test? That shorthand for the pervasive masculine default in most movies looks for three criteria. First, a movie must have at least two female characters. Second, they must talk to one another at some point. Third, they must talk about something other than a man. For such a modest bar to equal treatment, it proves damn hard for a lot of movies (or novellas or graphic novels or plays) to pass.
In “Tammy,” the new road-trip romp from romp-ready comedienne Melissa McCarthy, we have a script that almost inverts the formula. It includes a few male characters, so there’s that (a couple of them even introduce themselves with surnames!). Then, the only spoken interaction between two men, at least that I noticed, comes when a son (Mark Duplass) tries to roust his goat-horny father (Gary Cole, forever Lumbergh for “Office Space” fans) to leave the bar where the latter is pursuing Tammy’s grandmother (Susan Sarandon). The son argues that it wouldn’t be “fair to mom” for them to stay out late. You could make the case, then, if you take a wide berth, that the only time two men in “Tammy” talk to one another, it’s loosely about a woman, a real anomaly in big summer release fare.
This is enough in itself to make “Tammy” an unusual movie — it is in fact a story about women, and not a story about women while actually talking about men. McCarthy stars, with a surprising amount of the spotlight, given that she’s sharing the screen with the likes of Sarandon, who’s funny and arch as a substance-abusing matriarch with a genial low-grade criminality about her; and with Kathy Bates, a brusque, pyromaniacal cousin who knows how to throw a summer party. McCarthy also produces a script that she co-wrote with director Ben Falcone — her husband of nearly 10 years and, in “Tammy,” a putz fast-food manager who fires her in the first few minutes. The pair also split producing credits with the likes of “Funny or Die” founders Will Farrell and Adam McKay.
So what do we get for this lineup? Less than you’d probably hope, alas. “Tammy” is shaky, hurt largely by a slow start; the first belly laugh doesn’t arrive until about 20 minutes into the movie, by which point its main character has already been fired, had her car wrecked, found her husband carrying on with a neighbor, and in a bit of a meltdown, agreed to enlist her grandmother on a to-hell-with-it road trip from their tiny Illinois hometown. McCarthy in this brutal stretch plays beneath her talent, braying her lines and flailing her stout physique in what begins to feel like a bombastic, thinly written tantrum.
McCarthy and the story find a rhythm, in less preachy fashion than you might expect, when Tammy and her grandmother start bonding over drinks and conquests. When they treat each other shabbily, it’s played first for laughs and then treated with real emotional consequences. Sarandon’s great here, a graying but no less sexually aware throwback to her “Bull Durham” days a generation ago, who also treats her character’s alcoholism with a seriousness that gives the film a quiet acidic edge. In “Tammy,” unlike in most comedies, boozing is only funny until it spills into full-blown drunkenness, which gets ever harder to excuse.
“Tammy” makes some bold choices and wanders into some genuinely funny moments. For some, it’ll be a pleasantly subversive, dude-friendly chick flick. For most, it’ll be a better-than-average comedy, once the lulls pass. Be patient. You’ve seen better, but it likely wasn’t this original.