July 26, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

First, the bad: There are too many story elements (and not enough story development) thrown into the latest Spider-Man installment: Peter Parker's relationship with his girlfriend, Gwen; his search to find out the truth about his dad; his relationship with Harry Osborne, son of his dad's business and research partner; his own struggle to honor a promise he made to Gwen's police chief father in the previous film. None of these plot points has the time to grow into something sustained. When we see flashbacks of Peter's parents, we might be fooled into the thinking that the movie is going to focus on that story, but there's not much to show for it aside from a montage of Peter covering his bedroom wall with newspaper clippings and photos related to his dad's research and parents' tragic deaths. (There's an extended flashback scene where we see what happened to them, but it's never clear why the writers included it.) Later Peter discovers that his father's research lab has been kept in pristine condition, hidden in a secret subway compartment that was once used for FDR. While we do learn one relevant piece of information in this scene, it's an example of what doesn't work in this movie: the myriad bits of exposition that don't function as anything other than plot markers.

The film also develops at least two villains (possibly a third if you include the ending). Spider-Man has a lot on his plate, and increasingly, movies like this one are asking viewers to take on more, more, more. That's not to say we're getting more complexity, or more quality, just more. More bang for our buck, I suppose, because, like most of its ilk, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has a lot of bang. Much of it is generated by the latest villain, Electro (played by Jamie Foxx). I like much of this entry, but as I sit and recall how long it was, how bloated it was, I find myself wishing the movie had been pared down. The endless scenes of things exploding become mind-numbing and indistinguishable from Captain America and Batman and any other series.

Speaking of explosion scenes, I'd like to know how much hypothetical money it costs to repair New York City after Spider-Man (or any other superhero who calls the Big Apple home) does his thing. These enormous set pieces full of collisions and shattered glass and cars careening into each other and buildings collapsing and countless near-death experiences are just so wearisome. Every time I see one of these things--or even just the previews--I wonder why in the world so many people keep coming back. What else do they think they're going to see? And aren't they tired of the same old same old yet? The answer is an obvious "no" when you consider that this Spider-Man made 700 million dollars in the U.S. alone. Captain America has also broken the 700 million dollar marker, ditto X-Men: Days of Future Past (coming in ahead so far at 736 mil). I can only conclude that audiences--the audiences who live for comic book movies--have an unquenchable thirst for more of these, and presumably don't care that these movies repeat themselves or that the series are rebooted again and again. But why? Perhaps the culture has become so hopeless that superhero movies fulfill a kind of void. It may also be that these movies are like junk food: They condition people to crave the kind of flashy instant gratification they provide. When Pauline Kael described the 1977 Star Wars as a "box of Crackerjacks that's all prizes," she was describing every summer movie that's ever been made since Star Wars.

Now the good: Admittedly, Amazing Spider-Man 2 is enjoyable for what it is. And that isn't meant to sound like faint praise. I really did enjoy a lot of it, and I was satisfied with the ending, although it's conceivable that many people were not. What does work, and what is the saving grace of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, is Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. Andrew Garfield is an actor who truly feels, and that emotion registers on the screen. It's hard not to respond to his sincerity. He also gets more funny bits of dialogue and action this time, especially in the first forty-five minutes or so when he flies around performing various Spider-Man tasks. These moments allow Garfield's natural charm to come through those tights and that silly bug mask. And Emma Stone may be the most likable young actress working in Hollywood right now. I can't think of anyone like her at the moment. She gazes out into the world with those big dreamy starlit eyes, but she's also smart and confident. Never for once do you feel someone could pull the rug out from under her. The movie is surely bolstered by the charisma these two performers exude, and it makes much of Spider-Man 2 bearable, even fun.

Even though it's entertaining to see Spider-Man web his away around skyscrapers, the action sequences eventually blur together into the blasé chaos we've come to expect from these movies. However, every scene of the two young lovers takes on a separate movie life. No other superhero movie romance comes close to capturing this kind of attraction. The scenes of Andrew and Emma, however repetitive or cliched, are something like a rest stop along the highway of endless superhero movie madness. We get to step out of the car, stretch our legs, and breathe.

I'm happy to report that in this film, Sally Field (returning as Peter's loving aunt) has a little more acting to do this time around. A little more. In the previous film, every time Field appeared on screen, she was a bystander. (Oscar-winner: Best Veteran Actress to Stand Around and Look Concerned While the Stars Hash Out Their Problems.) It made me wonder how many days she came to work with no lines to actually perform. Is this a depressing thing for actors? Are they just grateful to be getting work after they've reached "a certain age"? If so, it's a disservice, and a waste of tremendous gifts. But here, Field's character finally gets to talk, and she finally has something to say. Sadly, Jamie Foxx, who plays a nerdy technician for Oscorp, is miscast, not because he gives a bad performance, but because it's simply depressing to see him play such a loser. As the outcast Max Dillon, he wanders through life virtually invisible to those around him. As such, he's got just the right amount of inner-rage welling up inside him to make him a terrifying presence once he dons super-powers as Electro. Foxx may have wanted the challenge of doing something different, but he's such a charming, handsome, in-command actor that seeing him play the schlubby Max Dillon is a let-down.

And just when we think the movie can't go on much longer, director Marc Webb and the writers decide to invest what seems like another eternity into the villainous deeds of Harry Osborn (played by Dane DeHaan). With Paul Giamatti (as Rhino, a big beastly man so unlike Paul Giamatti that I didn't recognize him), Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz as Peter's mom and dad, and Colm Feore.

July 20, 2014

Marked Woman

A good example of the kinds of fun roles actresses got to play in the 1930s: Bette Davis is a hostess at a popular nightclub that's just been taken over by a mobster named Johnny Vanning (played by Eduardo Ciannelli). She lives with four other women who work at the nightclub, and there's an early shot of them walking home from work in their fancy cheap coats. They're tough and they've weathered a lot of storms. Something about their camaraderie makes Marked Woman memorable, even though the film isn't all that great. The uninspired plot involves Humphrey Bogart as an assistant district attorney trying to pin Vanning to several unsolved murders. The courtroom scenes are rather pedestrian. But that Bette Davis fire is certainly here. She's so good, even when her performance is overwrought and over-the-top, that you can't take your eyes off her. (When Vanning smacks her, she looks back at him with contempt, never even flinching.) Davis and the other girls are a formidable team of tough-as-nails broads (and I use the term affectionately). They're played by Lola Lane, Isabel Jewell, Mayo Methot, and Rosalind Marquis. With Jane Bryan and Allen Jenkins. Directed by Lloyd Bacon. 1937.

July 16, 2014

The Star

Bette Davis is arguably the best actress of the old Hollywood era. Even bad movies are bolstered by a Bette Davis performance, even a bad Bette Davis performance. Davis dominated the screen in the 1930s and early 40s, but by 1950, her career seemed to be over. All About Eve and its writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz "resurrected me from the dead" she once said. All About Eve remains one of the great studies of an actor's neurotic sensibilities, and it signaled a new sub-genre of Hollywood films about Hollywood films and their troubled people. They were generally dark movies, like Sunset Boulevard and In a Lonely Place. All About Eve's heroine, a fictitious Broadway star named Margo Channing, feels threatened by a hot young thing--a seemingly devoted fan named Eve Harrington--and is all the more self-conscious about her career because she's just turned 40. But watching Bette Davis in All About Eve is like watching a fireworks show that has been perfectly paced and brilliantly executed. She gives the best performance of her career in All About Eve, and yet its success led to a lot of rather crummy pictures, like The Star (1952) which is the dark side of Margo Channing. Here she plays Margaret Elliott, a fading movie star who can't get her life together.

Bette Davis was always at her least appealing when she played it pathetic, and her Margaret Elliott--with the exception of a few blowsy, blustery sequences where she shouts at the top of her lungs and that old Davis fire comes back for a moment--is a concoction of camp and mock-tragedy. Watching Bette Davis, you always get the feeling she's being put on display. That only became problematic when it no longer seemed like she was in on the joke. In The Star, it's not clear if she is or isn't. It's quite clear, however, that she's pandering to the audience in a new way that her Margo Channing never did. The Star is fascinating, particularly in its depiction of dead Hollywood acting careers (particularly for actresses, whose beauty/sex appeal has faded). But it's never fun seeing someone like Bette Davis being so defeated by life. When Margaret finally gets a shot at another movie and she ruins it by trying to make her feeble, aging character appear sexy and appealing, it's a new low for the movie and the star. (And that last-minute redemption scene at the end is pure garbage.) Even in movies like Dark Victory, where Davis's character was beautifully terminally ill, she rallied, and we rooted for her. The Star was directed by Stuart Heisler. With Sterling Hayden as a hunky actor that takes Davis's character under his wing. (She helped him start his career years back.) Also with Natalie Wood, in a truly bad performance as Davis's daughter, Warner Anderson, and Fay Baker.


In Snowpiercer, which takes place in the near future, the world has entered a new ice age, ushered in by a catastrophically misfired attempt to stop global warming. (By spraying a new kind of gas into the atmosphere to cool the earth: it works, all right.) As a result, the only surviving humans must remain inside a massive train built by a megalomaniac named Wilford, whom we gather fancies himself a modern-day Noah, building his indestructible ark as a safeguard against the coming doom despite widespread disbelief among the public. (The passengers--the ones not being subjected to constant tyranny--regard him as a kind of god, their savior in fact, and they chant his name with the wide-eyed glee of the most devoted Manson follower.)

This train--fortified to withstand the intense cold and supposedly designed to run forever--tugs along a circular track that orbits the earth and takes an entire year to do it. But inside the train, human beings haven't reformed their age-old class struggles, despite the dire circumstances. The haves are ensconced snugly in the front with all the comforts of prosperity, while the have-nots have been relegated to the back of the train where they sleep in dark, crowded cells, and subsist on these brown, gelatinous protein bars that look like Worcestershire Jello. (When we find out what these little slabs of blobby muck are made of, it's truly stomach-turning.) Naturally, there's insurrection afoot, and at the helm of this slowly building rebellion is an aging wise man-type named Gilliam who's played by John Hurt, and a young, strong type--played by Chris Evans--who's named Curtis.

Snowpiercer spends a good thirty minutes wallowing in the grim gloominess of the "coach" passengers as they live in the kind of misanthropic squalor you read about in a Charles Dickens novel. Every day they're lined up in rows by tough-talking soldiers who count them and keep them subservient. Then their nasty protein bars are dispensed. Occasionally they receive visitations from on high, mostly from the pompous "Minister"--one of Wilford's underlings--who is played by Tilda Swinton, ever the trooper. She's never been afraid to look ugly on camera, and not just aesthetically. Here she's a real hag, and especially ominous because her character affects a superficial benevolence that everyone sees through. She's like everyone's worst case scenario of a high school guidance counselor, inept and myopic in her devotion to authority, doing the bidding of the ruling class. Swinton invests a lot in nervous ticks and weird laughs, showing the Minister for the awkward, eccentric, naive phony she is. But other than Swinton's character, we never get to know the other villains. They're just grunts doing grunt work.

And as for the protagonists, Chris Evans makes an impression. He's got the right amount of power as an actor to be a forceful lead. But he doesn't have much to do as an actor, other than play a morally driven action hero leading the malnourished malcontents on their quest to take over the train. (And how is it that he alone looks so healthy? He may be dressed in dark, baggy clothes, but there's no hiding the fact that he's rather svelte for having spent 17 years on this dreary express.) Octavia Spencer also registers, playing another one of the have-nots. She's the tough mama bear whose son was snatched by the master of the train (for reasons that won't be made clear until the end of the movie).

The film is intermittently successful. I have to admit that once the rebels starting making their advance, I was glued to the screen. And yet, there's a darkness, a mean, violent streak, that makes this film unappealing. It's been suggested that the filmmakers were in part paying homage to Terry Gilliam's futuristic film Brazil, which many people seem to be quite fond of. I'm not fond of Brazil, and indeed that movie feels akin to Snowpiercer. This comes out particularly in the way many of the characters on board gleefully perform their assigned roles, totally divorced from the moral implications of keeping one group enslaved while other group eats fresh sushi and parties away in the disco-compartment. (There's also an interesting drug called Kronol, the meth of the future, that everyone's into.)

Snowpiercer does hold one's interest for most of the film, but two hours of watching people act nastily to each other starts to take a toll. There's a bizarre scene, near the end, when the surviving rebels pass through a classroom compartment where the Stepford-ish schoolteacher gives blissed out speeches on the goodness of Wilford and the evils of questioning authority, encouraging the children to repeat back various chants they've memorized. It's funny, but obvious. And it smacks of the familiar. There's a lot in Snowpiercer that has been appropriated from other futuristic movies. The director, Bong Joon-ho, adapted the screenplay (along with Kelly Masterson) from a graphic novel. But it's an amalgam of all the dark dystopian pop literature of the 20th century, from its dreary apocalyptic setting to its inherent distrust of machinery to its indictment of the not-so-invisible class systems at work in society. One of the friends with whom I was seeing the movie joked that the train should be described as a "microcosm of society". That's exactly what many reviewers will probably say--completely without irony--but that's just the trouble. My friend had hit the nail on the head: The film is full of carefully placed metaphors--all of them obvious, none of them particularly meaningful or innovative. You can spot them a mile away and label them like the parts of a skeleton.

And what of the ending? (Spoilers below)

The only surviving characters are people we barely get to know. After Curtis encounters Wilford--who turns out to be kind of charming (he's played by Ed Harris)--the train blows up (thanks to the rebel's efforts, using a bomb fashioned by that toxic drug Kronol) and derails (killing all the have-nots instantly, I might add). The survivors: a teenage girl who spends most of the movie tripped out on the drug, and a little boy who has maybe five minutes of screen time, and barely any lines. They're symbols, not characters, and as such they carry no feeling or genuine sympathy in them from us the audience. They emerge from the train and stomp out into the chilling but bright wintry air, crunching through the snow-capped mountains, and we're supposed to be hopeful. I felt like the movie had pommeled us over the head for two hours, killed off everyone we might have thought we cared about, and then asked us to tear up for the fresh hope for mankind that had been born. Somehow, that just didn't work for me.

(End of spoilers)

But the film has compelling moments, and the action does have a kick to it. A lot of people are quite sure that this is a great movie, or at the very least the next big thing in action-futuristic-science fiction thrillers. But it's really just the latest iteration of the heavy-handed stuff we've been producing for the last ten years. It pushes all your buttons, but there's essentially no humanity behind it. Perhaps some will feel content in arguing that this is the very point of a movie like Snowpiercer, that humanity has sunk to new lows. But simply showing us class inequities isn't humane or redeeming. And if people are so despicable, why are we then supposed to care about their survival at all?

With Jamie Bell, Song-Kang-ho, Go Ah-sung, and Ewen Bremner. Music by Marco Beltrami. Filmed in Austria and South Korea, and completed in 2012.

July 13, 2014

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

Last night I attended a special screening of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), celebrating its 40th anniversary and featuring a live in-person appearance by actor Gunnar Hansen, who played Leatherface. It was a particular treat to hear Mr. Hanson speak--so eloquently--about his experiences making that film during some long, hot summer days in Texas in 1973. He's a good-natured, honest, funny man and the crowd was obviously enamored of him. He also wrote a book chronicling the making of this seminal horror film,  Chainsaw Confidential, which I'm planning to read.

Seeing horror movies with an audience is so different from watching them at home, and even though I had seen Texas Chain Saw on the big screen before, it wasn't until last night that the movie really struck me as something truly masterful. For one thing, the print we watched last night was beautiful, and according to Hansen, superior even to the original print, which was marred by some naifs who accidentally mucked up the color of the film and made everything look several shades off. Scenes that were once too dark to distinguish shapes were now much clearer. The whole movie sparkled in a kind of stark panache. And yet, this new print did not diminish the film's raw, terrifying power. In fact, Chain Saw is one of the few horror movies that hasn't dated at all. No one in the audience was laughing--unless it was a part that was intended to be funny. Very few horror films sustain such levels of control over the audience forty years out.
As for the critics' initial reactions, it probably didn't matter that the print was botched upon release, because the movie is such a harrowing film to endure. Critics were quick to dismiss it, or deride it, much like they did with George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. (And many who denounced those films later recanted.) Stephen Koch wrote in Harper's that it was a "vile piece of sick crap...It is a film with literally nothing to recommend it." Roger Ebert reacted more fairly, admitting that it was "well-made, well-acted, and all too effective," despite the fact that he couldn't "imagine why anyone would want to make a movie like this." I can understand how Ebert felt, because when I first saw this movie, I absolutely hated it. I was utterly disappointed, bored, disturbed, and confused that some critics I'd read (remember, it's reputation improved greatly over time) had referred to it in such glowing terms as a sharp dark comedy and a great exercise in shock. Indeed, it was shocking, but at the time, its value was lost on me.

I was a kid and I rented a copy of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and watched it in my parents' living room in broad daylight. (My folks, while lenient about the movies I watched, were adamant that I not watch The Simpsons. I guess excruciating nightmares were better than the possibility of picking up Bart Simpson's smart-ass vernacular.) Perhaps my initial dislike of Chain Saw was because of the hype, which I'd read about and heard about. (This movie was after all ingrained in the popular culture, so that many a movie and TV show has alluded to it in some way. Gunnar Hansen recalled discovering Chain Saw's impact years later when he heard the name "Leatherface" referenced in an episode of Cheers.)

Essentially, the film is what you'd get if the gang from Scooby Doo ran into the Manson Family: five hippies (Sally, her wheelchair-bound brother Franklin, Kurt, Pam, and Jerry) traveling through rural Texas in their green van are stranded at an old dark house. They split up, and soon wander off and into the clutches of a backwoods family of psychopaths, including the chainsaw-wielding Leatherface, a mentally impaired man who wears a self-made mask of human skin. The film opens with a hokey yet brilliant narration (by John Larroquette) followed by chilling images of the Sawyer's grave-robbing handiwork. The director, Tobe Hooper, borrowed a little of the movie's content from the real-life killer Ed Gein, a Wisconsin creeper who robbed graves and dismembered the corpses, among other things. (It's rather sordid.) And, just to set the record straight, the movie is mostly fiction. Some movie-goers were fooled by the 2003 remake, which claimed to show "real police footage" of the "real" Texas Chain Saw Massacre. But in fact, it's all pretty much made up, concocted by screenwriters Kim Henkel and Hooper.

Pretty soon, Sally (played with sympathetic pluckiness by Marilyn Burns, who deserves a retroactive Academy Award for Best Suffering in a Motion Picture) is chased by Leatherface and captured, and then forced to spend a hellish night with the mad Sawyer family. It truly is a descent into a kind of 20th-century American Hell. The film captures the frightening possibilities of a free society, which by definition, allows people like the Sawyers to go about their business unhindered so long as they keep their proclivities under the radar. Indeed, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre cemented our fear of rural people, so secluded, so unchecked, that they could be doing anything in their creaky old farmhouses. The film plays on that inherent snobbish suspicion, and, like John Waters in his early underground films, makes fun of the snobs themselves by confirming their worst fears.

Last night, I was amazed and pleased to see how well this movie still works. And I was honestly relieved that I genuinely liked the movie. I can't say it's a movie people will enjoy, because it is rough going at times, but seeing the way the film works--as a movie, and as a horror movie--particularly on such a shoestring budget, one comes away giddy about the possibilities of film. It's a remarkably literate horror movie. Hooper and his team, which includes cinematographer Daniel Pearl, production designer Ron Bozman, editors Sallye Richardson and Larry Carroll, saturate the film will all kinds of creepy imagery. The modern Gothic look of Central Texas (it was filmed near Austin) is also a contributing factor, itself a kind of character in the film that shapes the nature of the horror: The clapboard houses, the tall grass swooning under the punishing sun, the faded tombstones in the country graveyard, the town drunk muttering to himself that he "sees things," (he sucks in a deep gulp of breath and the camera cuts away before he exhales), the goofy, naturalistic dialogue between the innocents, the murder house, full of bones arranged prominently in every room. It's probably a hard sell for some, but there's something darkly poetic and shattering about a movie that looks evil in the face, that lets evil parade itself around for a little while. (And actually, it's not anywhere near as gory as people imagine. Most of it is suggestion.)

With Jim Siedow, Edwin Neal, Paul A. Partain, Allen Danziger, William Vail, Teri McMinn, and John Dugan.

July 08, 2014

22 Jump Street

I haven't seen 21 Jump Street (the film or the TV show on which it was based), but I must admit I had a good time at 22 Jump Street, a big-budget comedy that at least has the decency to make fun of itself. It also does a remarkable job of spoofing/elevating the male buddy comedy. I remember reading something in college about the male homosocial relationship. That word kept bubbling up in my mind throughout 22 Jump Street, a movie that celebrates the good things about male friendship and pokes fun at the idea that men should constantly demarcate the lines of heterosexuality that keep their friendships from looking anything other than straight. As ridiculous as this movie is--the plot is somewhat incidental--it's hard not to like. Channing Tatum proves his comic chops, and Jonah Hill--an actor I've had a hard time liking on screen--becomes sympathetic. I didn't expect to have either of those reactions walking into 22 Jump Street.

This time the partners--who in the previous film infiltrated a high school despite being far too old to convincingly play teenagers--are sent to a college to investigate suspected drug dealing. The drug in question (which is something of a joke in itself) is a new hybrid called WHYPHY (pronounced like Wi-fi). It's the latest thing with all the young folk, giving them about four hours' worth of intense concentration (for studying and such) and then another four hours of intense insanity (for being crazy and such). But when one of this new concoction's users dies, the police become worried that it could sweep the nation. So they send in Tatum and Hill for a little undercover work.

Channing Tatum has a comic goofiness that I haven't noticed before. I'm guessing it's present in 21 Jump Street (and probably other films going back even further), so I'm a bit late to the party. But it's a wonderful realization that he's not just making it on his looks. (Because Magic Mike was pretty dreadful.) He has timing and spontaneity, and he plays the slightly dumb cop with charm. He and Jonah Hill also have a good chemistry together. Their relationship--which is constantly being subversively (and not so subversively) compared to a gay couple's--is about as messy and high-strung as two people who have been married for 10 years.

Along the way, 22 Jump Street manages to make a lot of fun of its own bigness, and the fact that it's now part of an apparent franchise. (The end credits--imagining all sorts of Jump Street sequels that would make the creators of the endless Police Academy series feel inadequate--are truly hilarious.) But what makes this movie work is the sense that these are guys who care for their friendship. As sex-obsessed as a lot of these movies are (there seems to be no other object of amusement in the mind of many a Hollywood comedy writer), the writers of 22 Jump Street (Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel, Rodney Rothman) are at least interested in the idea of friendship and the weird emotions that can make friendship as complicated as a romantic relationship. And the fact that the line becomes blurred in distinguishing between the two is a reliable source of comic inspiration for this movie.

As a movie, 22 Jump Street works about as well as a Beverly Hills Cop-type film: it's predictable, a bit loose with its sense of story, and overall, not too inventive. I'm sure I'm guilty of over-praising the film for its humorous self-awareness. After all, being self-aware doesn't excuse a movie for being predictable or resorting to the same old jokes. Perhaps it's just funny because this is a big studio production, and it feels like the writers are sneaking in jokes at the franchise's expense. (On the other hand, the product placement--I noticed quite a few brands prominently displayed--somewhat hampers this trick.) But if you want something funny this summer, and you--like me--weren't all that thrilled with Tammy--you could do a lot worse.

Directed by Phil Lord. With Peter Stormare, Ice Cube, Amber Stevens, Wyatt Russell (son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn), Jillian Bell (who's hysterical as one of the coeds), Jimmy Tatro, Nick Offerman, and in cameos: Dave Franco, Seth Rogen, Queen Latifah, and Ana Farris. 

July 06, 2014


Tammy represents quite a lot of missed opportunities. It's a meandering comedy about a woman who would generally be described as "white trash" embarking on a road trip with her alcoholic grandmother. (Using Grandma's car and money.) The film opens with its star, the amiably blunt, unfettered, unashamedly not-all-together Melissa McCarthy, driving her beat-up green sedan down a narrow country road. She reaches in the back for something and careens right into a deer. Tammy gets out and crouches down, lovingly talking to the deer, patting it (dangerously near its impressive antlers) and praying it will get up and scamper off unscathed. When it does, it startles Tammy (laughter from the audience) and she happily watches it indeed walk away, unharmed by the collision. This scene is telling, because McCarthy usually acts like a stick of dynamite, and whenever a comic scene turns chaotic, she explodes. But here, as Tammy, McCarthy uses a little more restraint. She's not quite as profane as she was in The Heat. And she's not as worldly-wise as she was in Bridesmaids. But seeing Melissa McCarthy play a ne'er-do-well is kind of depressing. Perhaps because she's a regular person, so not Hollywood, it's been enjoyably surprising to see her play people who are capable and funny. Here she's funny because she's a putz.

Sadly, Tammy isn't the smashing comedy it could have been. This is almost exclusively the project of Melissa McCarthy and her husband, actor/director Ben Falcone. McCarthy produced the film, and the two of them wrote the screenplay. (Falcone appears here as the manager of a hamburger joint.) But neither of them seems sure of who or what Tammy is supposed to be. Is she the obnoxious perpetual screw-up of the first half of the film? If so, the film seriously errs when suddenly Tammy turns nice and gets cleaned up (thanks to her cousin Lenore, a rich lesbian full of homespun wisdom played by Kathy Bates, whose partner is played by the lovely Sandra Oh). McCarthy has scored a lot of points for being a blowsy wreck with a foul mouth. But I think the reason people fell in love with her as a performer was because she was an endearing oddity in Bridesmaids. She was the only character in that film who was brutally honest. Yet behind her honesty was love, not spite. Tammy is so much a caricature that when we get to the sweet side of her, it feels utterly manufactured. This character is a circus act, a "greatest hits" compilation of McCarthy's somewhat limited--although admittedly very funny at times--schtick.

Perhaps I wouldn't be so irritated with this movie if it weren't for the sheer waste of it. This film has in its cast, among others, Susan Sarandon, Allison Janney, Toni Collette, and Gary Cole. Yet the characters seem poorly thought out, particularly in terms of age. They cast Saradon, who's 67, as Tammy's grandmother (McCarthy is 43), Allison Janney, who's 54, as her mom. That shoddy math bugged me throughout the film because a mother-daughter movie would have worked just as well. Sarandon is too fresh, too strong of an actress, to play the feeble but feisty grandma. It's as if they wanted to go for the short, prunish old grandmother (played by Estelle Getty) from The Golden Girls but cast Bea Arthur to play her instead. Sarandon really doesn't get to do that much of interest here anyway. And despite the fact that she does a lot of immature things (flashing her breasts at a lesbian party, shacking up with a stranger she meets in a bar), it's very difficult to see her as Tammy's mom. They just don't seem remotely related to each other. As for actresses Allison Janney and Toni Collette, I have no idea why they agreed to make this film when they had absolutely nothing funny or interesting to do (especially Collette, who barely speaks). Perhaps it was a favor? Certainly a misuse of their considerable talents.

There's also a tedious love interest, played by Mark Duplass, who's probably the most uninteresting romantic lead I've seen in a long time. The film seems ready and willing to give Tammy a redemptive streak, yet it's not bold enough to give her a hunky Channing Tatum-ish star (or someone with more personality) as a boyfriend. Perhaps they thought a bland character would balance Tammy like mayo on a chili pepper. (I'm not sure that's actually a thing...) Duplass is just too boring, too neutral, too unoffensive. He tells Tammy that he's attracted to her because his life is boring and she's very not boring, and Tammy rightly makes fun of his poor complimenting skills. Why did the filmmakers think this would be good comedy? It's makes for a lot of dreary scenes between them both. Why didn't they just find Tammy some hunky Tab Hunter-esque actor the way John Waters did for Divine in Polyester?

Kathy Bates was the most likable character in this movie, and even Sandra Oh came off well despite her limited screen time and dialogue. She has a lovely talent for facial expressions, and she acts circles around some of the more talkative characters. Dan Aykroyd shows up briefly as Tammy's father, but it's as if they just wanted to say, "hey, we've got Dan Aykroyd in this movie. You haven't seen him in a while! He's funny!" He does get one funny moment when he threatens to murder Tammy's cheating husband (played by Nat Faxon). Yes, Tammy is full of talented people assigned to undercooked roles, which may be the worst crime a comedy can commit.

There are amusing bits. Perhaps the funniest scene in the movie is the one you see in the trailer, when Tammy holds up a fast food restaurant with a greasy paper bag over her head and another one fastened over her hand so she can pretend she's holding a gun. When the film stops being a road trip movie--because Tammy and Grandma are visiting cousin Lenore at her beautiful country house in Kentucky--it feels like a relief from the banal chaos of their journey. But mostly Tammy is a messy movie about the gloriousness of being a mess. I could vouch for the second part if this movie were more put together. That's one mess that does need fixing.