In McCarthy, we have a performer we can trust to deliver laughs even when they barely exist on the page. The "Mike & Molly" star and Oscar nominee (for "Bridesmaids") produced and co-wrote her latest with her husband, Ben Falcone, who also directed. The movie doesn't look like anything special. The number of reaction shots designed to cue audience adoration could choke a horse. Yet matters of visual craft, story logic and tonal indecision are nothing up against a diversion that pounds its heroine with adversity while allowing her a romantic prospect in the form of a nice, gentle fellow, in this case played by Mark Duplass, whose job in "Tammy" is mainly to beam and crack up at his co-star.
This is what it's like most of a typical movie year, only with the genders switched. The overwhelming percentage of comedies are made, driven and consumed by guys; the female roles limit actresses either to decoration or bland, recessive supportive background maternal figures. "Tammy" at least lets McCarthy and Susan Sarandon run the show. You don't believe for a second that Sarandon is this protagonist's broken-down, alcoholic grandmother. (Allison Janney plays Tammy's mother.) But the movie shoves McCarthy and Sarandon in a car together quickly, without much in the way of expository set-up.
Brash yet insecure, Tammy lives somewhere in downstate Illinois (the film was shot in North Carolina), and when we meet her while she's having an epically lousy day. Bang, her old car hits a deer on the way to the fast-food joint from which she's about to be fired. Boom, she arrives home early to find her husband (Nat Faxon) dallying with a neighbor (Toni Collette). Tammy and her grandmother embark on a much-needed escape, vaguely in the direction of Niagara Falls, so the older woman can cross the waterfall off her personal bucket list.
The bulk of the story unfolds in Missouri, where grandmother's cousin, played by Kathy Bates, has a huge riverside estate, and lives contentedly with her lover, portrayed by Sandra Oh. A 4th of July party provides the film with its centerpiece, as Sarandon's wisecracker gets sloshed enough to humiliate Tammy in public. Family secrets spill like knocked-over beer. The movie exploits heavy drinking and working-class-shlub cliches for fun, until it suits the plot's dramatic confrontations to play them for pathos.
The best bits care not for plot, or forwarding the action or any other overrated screenwriting element. There's hardly a whisper of politics or social satire in "Tammy," but when McCarthy's working-class doyenne, filing up the car at a gas station, mutters sarcastically: "Four bucks a gallon? Thanks, Obamacare!" the film blessedly makes room for a sliver of nonsense. My favorite moment has nothing to with story, or even the title character: It's a shot, held longer than usual (director Falcone has a few things to learn about pacing and cutting less frantically) depicting Bates on the dance floor, busting some moves resembling someone dealing with terrible back pain. As for Collette and Oh, they have next-to-nothing or nothing at all to say, to the point that you wonder if these characters are supposed to be mute, or mimes in training.