On the surprisingly strong Tammy, and its emerging feminist hero Melissa McCarthy 

The McCarthy Era

The McCarthy Era

Tammy, the new comedy co-written by and starring Melissa McCarthy, is a hell of a lot better than anyone had a right to expect. In light of this, perhaps we can take a moment to think about the film and its star as participants in the ongoing tug-of-war we call feminism, even if you might not immediately think of Tammy as some kind of statement in the culture wars. Indeed it's not, but part of what makes McCarthy such a welcome comedic presence in the cinema has a lot to do with a kind of everyday, lived-in feminism — a rare projection of general comfort with her zaftig form.

In other words, McCarthy's a big lady who is self-deprecating without being a shrinking violet, apologizing for simply taking up space the way most girls and women are taught to, especially big women. Her inability to, say, jump over a fast-food counter during an attempted robbery can play as a gag on being big, but it also reflects on a subsection of the national temperament: too many cheeseburgers, not enough time at the gym. Instead of becoming a self-inflicted misogynist joke, McCarthy's physical humor aims squarely at so-called "heartland" norms (white, lower- to lower-middle class, heterosexual suburbanites), exemplified by people who are blinkered where others are cocksure.

But as Tammy demonstrates, travel broadens the mind. (See also: Nebraska.) After losing her fast food job and discovering her no-account husband (Nat Faxon) is having an affair, Tammy decides to hit the road with her alcoholic grandmother (Susan Sarandon), a trip that naturally takes them both way off course. Unexpected meet-cutes, hugging and learning result, yes — but so does a fair amount of swearing, crotch-grabbing, and some quality time in the pokey. McCarthy and first-time director Ben Falcone cannot negotiate the film's terrain as smoothly as they should have, and this is probably because Tammy evolved in the course of making it. What starts out as a standard 90-minute Hollywood gag machine becomes a richer, more coherent character study. Industry imperatives being what they are, McCarthy and Falcone could hardly ask to thin out the broad humor.

But back to the question of Tammy and feminism. It's no spoiler to announce that by film's end, Tammy is a much more self-actualized person, happier and less defensive. But considering the film more broadly in terms of McCarthy's screen persona, we can see that the actress is at a crossroads and has indeed taken a new, empowering path. In a pivotal scene, Tammy is lectured by her cousin Lenore about how she had to fight to make it in the world as a lesbian "before gay was in style." Given that it's Kathy Bates delivering the speech, perhaps we can detect a sisterly subtext: You can make it in this business as a big woman, but you have to be really strong — and you have to be really smart.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.



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