This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Melissa McCarthy in a scene from "Tammy."

Tammy hits the road, with a splat

There is playing to your strengths and there is cringing overkill and with the road comedy Tammy, Melissa McCarthy is getting awfully close to the latter.

Tammy

1.5 stars (out of four)

Rated: 14A

There is playing to your strengths and there is cringing overkill and with the road comedy Tammy, Melissa McCarthy is getting awfully close to the latter.

Her aggressive comic style works best in small bursts in an ensemble cast, as her Oscar-nominated turn in Bridesmaids hilariously confirmed. She can also succeed if she’s paired with an equally go-for-broke partner, as she was with Sandra Bullock in last year’s summer hit The Heat.

Left to carry most of the laugh load, however, McCarthy just isn’t ready for prime time, especially since she has yet to move past the impulsive loudmouth character that brought her fame.

She co-wrote this mean-spirited and talent-squandering film with her comedian husband Ben Falcone, who also acts and makes his directing debut. The pair prove themselves tone deaf when it comes to family projects.

McCarthy’s titular Tammy is a walking time bomb, or rather a driving one.

After nearly killing a deer she carelessly struck on the highway, she arrives late for her job at a small Illinois burger joint and immediately gets fired by her martinet of a manager (Falcone).

On her way out the door, hurling oaths, Tammy retaliates by contaminating trays of food — and the “fun” has only just begun. She arrives tired and sweaty at her abode to find her husband (Nat Faxon) having a romantic dinner with their next-door neighbour (Toni Collette).

Tammy gets precious little sympathy from her mother Deb (Allison Janney) when she tearfully shows up moments later at her childhood home, demanding the keys to mom’s car so she can get the hell out of Hicksville. Deb refuses, having seen too many outbursts like these in the past.

But Tammy finds a willing co-conspirator in her grandma Pearl (Susan Sarandon) who not only has a car and a wad of cash but also a yen to see Niagara Falls before Deb shoves her into a nursing home.

Before you can say Thelma and Louise, the gals are tooling down the highway, illegally hoisting brewskis to the tune of Canned Heat’s Going Up The Country (guess Steppenwolf’s Born To Be Wild was unavailable).

How’d you guess that Pearl would also turn out to be a troublemaker? She’s into booze and sex, both of which are provided by a rowdy farmer (Gary Cole), much to the discomfort of his uptight son (Mark Duplass).

Tammy, meanwhile, seems determined to continue making a public spectacle of herself, as she rudely sets upon any person or machine that crosses her path. Brace yourself for confrontations with cops, liquor store clerks, water toy renters and burger stand drones, along with the inevitable third act bid for redemption and romance.

None of this is remotely mirthful — as good as she is, Sarandon lacks the comic timing of a Sandra Bullock or Kristen Wiig — and some of it is painful to watch.

Such as in a barroom scene, where Tammy sets out to prove she’s catnip to males boldly propositioning two men seated nearby.

When they politely turn her down, her response is to insinuate that they must be gay.

Homophobic much? There’s a lot of such crude humour in the film, which you expect from McCarthy, but what are we to make of the unspoken ageism in the film? It reinforces Hollywood’s implicit message that women over 40 have to play kooky or maternal characters.

McCarthy is 43, yet Janney, 54, is playing her mother while Sarandon, 67, is her grandmother. How does this make any sense outside of Hollywood?

The story could have been much better funnier had the three women played friends instead of multi-generational relations.

And why stop there? Make the film a true ensemble comedy by making better use of the very funny Toni Collette, and other amusing actors who are regrettably reduced to cameos: Kathy Bates, Sandra Oh and Dan Aykroyd.

But then Tammy is really only about Melissa McCarthy, which is where the problem begins and ends.

Peter Howell is a syndicated Toronto Star movie critic.

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