Melissa McCarthy's titular Tammy character is dumb and fat. We watch her suffer various indignities related to these conditions for just about the entire running time of Tammy. The movie starts out brutally: We open on Tammy driving a car that's at least 20 years old, blasting the Outfield's "Your Love" from a boombox on the passenger seat. There is trash strewn about in the backseat. She hits a deer, which survives but leaves her car now shitty and smoking. She arrives to her job at a fast food restaurant filthy and gets fired for looking disgusting. On her way out, she pockets cheeseburgers for "overtime due." She arrives home early to find her husband Greg (Nat Faxon) cheating on her with a thinner woman (played by a mute Toni Collette). She decides to leave him, but her suitcase breaks on her way out of the house. So she carries her balled up clothes to her parents' house, where her mother (Allison Janney) mentions that this sort of crisis is something that happens a lot to Tammy. Also during this conversation, it is revealed that Tammy doesn't know the definitions of "pattern" (she thinks things in patterns only come in twos) and "galaxy" (which she thinks is a repeating series of events—a pattern).
This character is humiliated relentlessly, and she's aware of it less than half of the time. "Guys are drawn to me like flies to shit," she brags to her grandmother Pearl (Susan Sarandon with a shock of curly gray granny hair). It's the kind of line that would set off outrage alarms had McCarthy not had a hand in its creation—she co-wrote Tammy with her husband Ben Falcone, who also directed the film. A whole scene passes before it dawns on Tammy why Pearl suggests "bees to honey" as a replacement metaphor. "Because that would make me..." says Tammy, leaving the smell of shit in the air.
Tammy and Pearl flee their miserable lives on a road trip, despite their open contempt for each other. Tammy's stupidity ensures at least a modicum of continued misery at all times. Her lack of intelligence and her size do the bulk of her characterizing, but there are flashes of nuance there. Tammy has an interior life that generally isn't suggested by comedies this broad. At one point, Pearl asks Tammy why she drew a smile on the paper bag that she made into a mask to return the money she recently robbed from a fast food joint (not the one she worked at, although like her departure from that place, she makes sure she doesn't leave without some food). "I'm not smiling, I'm showing tiger teeth," she says. I'd never heard the phrase "showing tiger teeth," but I get it. What's funny is that it's clearly some go-to imagery in Tammy's life.
Similarly, she describes her irresistibility to her love interest Bobby (Mark Duplass) like this: "I'm kinda like a Cheeto. You can't eat just one." He corrects her: "That's Lays potato chips." "No," she counters. "It's Cheetos for me. I love Cheetos."
The line I laughed at the hardest was Tammy's retort to Pearl's revelation that she had an affair with Duane Allman: "Y'know, one time I got fingered by Boz Skaggs."
Tammy makes us cringe a lot, and maybe simultaneously laugh if we're all lucky, whether she is fretting over the roll of donuts she ordered that's lodged in the snack machine, receiving backhanded compliments (Bobby tells her, "My life's boring and you're a very not boring person"), or describing further abuse that played out off screen ("I'm probably gonna need a tetanus shot because I got nipped by a raccoon last night!" she says of her night in sexile, sleeping on the doorstep of the motel room she shares with her grandmother). But she doesn't cringe herself until Pearl, a drunk pill-popper, says to her face in front of a crowd, "I don't need some fat loser telling me what to do." That statement ultimately knocks the wind out of Tammy, who finally understands what the movie has been saying about her all along.
Melissa McCarthy has talked candidly about her sensitivity to comments regarding her weight. She said critic Rex Reed's comments about her size in his Identity Theft review "might have crushed" her had she read them when she was younger. She took exception to being described as "America's plus-size sweetheart." And in a recent Rolling Stone cover story, she discusses how something as insignificant as an IMDb message board post that bummed her out:
What one post said was, "I hate that fat pig, and I hope she drops dead of a heart attack in front of her children." It was like from someplace in Ohio, at 3:43 a.m., and when I read it, all the air left my lungs. Like wait a minute. My kids? Like who—? What kind of a—? I kind of wanted to go to Ohio and just be like, "Hey, I have two girls, I do my best, and you hope I die in front of them? Like, what the fuck?"
She also told Rolling Stone that she'd "kill, absolutely kill" to look like she did in high school, when she was a size 6.
So it's tempting to psychologize this project that McCarthy helped create. Is she getting to the fat jokes before we do, or at least showing that she can write better ones than her detractors? Is it meta-commentary on how stupid those jokes really are? Is Tammy self-hatred? I don't know, and the more I think about it the less I care. Maybe the proper course of action is not to think too much, and just let a broad comedy be a broad comedy.
But I do know that Tammy challenges you with a ridiculous, laughable protagonist who's the type of person that pop culture generally tells us to avert our eyes from. That Tammy's companion is from the also ignored demographic of elderly women is no coincidence either. You're supposed to root for Tammy when you aren't laughing at her (and maybe even when you are, since her buffoonery does the service of of providing you with entertainment), otherwise she wouldn't get her happy Hollywood ending that feels inevitable only in retrospect. Maybe that's too mixed a message for some, but Tammy makes you regard Tammy for both who and what, and in doing so, it made her feel uncommonly real to me. Sometimes you laugh at people that you like, and sometimes you like people because they make you laugh, and sometimes those distinctions are even less clear while you enjoy a person all the same.