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In Praise of Car Movies

And why 'Tammy' veers into a ditch full of hatred for the poor and heavyset.

By Dorothy Woodend 12 Jul 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend writes about film for The Tyee every other week. Find her previous Tyee articles here.

Many things happen in cars. Virginities are lost, songs are sung, conversations are had, babies are made and life is changed. Some of the greatest American movies involve people in cars going places. Think Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, Vanishing Point, Wild at Heart, Badlands, and of course Thelma & Louise. Other than vehicular matters, what do all of these films have in common? They all involve a certain level of banditry, outlaw culture, and ultimately, escape from the ordinary world.

If you're expecting Tammy to be in this same school, you will be sadly mistaken. Despite the presence of Susan Sarandon and a car, this film feels more like the anti-Thelma & Louise movie. But that is not its worst crime.

Certainly, it is a comedy that is not funny. But worse than that, it often feels like a cinematic form of doublespeak, pretending to be one thing while actually being its exact opposite. Rebellion = Conformity. Sanctimony = Hilarity. Slavery = Freedom. And so on.

You could almost feel the palpable confusion in the theatre. People had come expecting a rebellious road trip, and ended up with a sermon to economic order and a restoration of the normative state.

What the hell, one might well ask?

Leaving aside the boneheaded construction of the thing (supposedly a labour of love from star Melissa McCarthy and husband/director Ben Falcone), the film is one of those bait and switch affairs. The entire marketing campaign is designed to bring in the punters who wish to see class revolution on the road. What we get, in fact, is a lecture on how there are no handouts in life and that you better toe the line if you want to get anything in this world.

It is natural and reasonable to feel suckered, since that is pretty much what happens. McCarthy, playing upon earlier successes like Bridesmaids and The Heat, looks superficially like characters she has embodied before, tough-talking, no-bullshit women who take what they want and never apologize for being large and in charge.

Tammy, despite looking sort of the same as these earlier babes, is missing a few key qualities. But before we get to the terrible dawning moment of realization ("I've been had") we must dutifully go through the narrative ropes, the setup, the takedown and the reinstitution of the established order. Buckle yourself in, because you're going for a ride.

Tammy is one of life's punching bags, apt to pitch a fantod at the slightest provocation, but too dumb to stay down. She takes a licking and keeps coming back for more. I guess she is supposed to be emblematic of a certain socio-economic class, uneducated, boorish and wildly self-aggrandizing, a signifier of the rough, rude life force that animates the lower classes, blows up Lady Chatterley's skirt, and keeps Adam Sandler fans in a stupor.

The film's opening scene tells you all of this as our heroine drives to her job in a fast food restaurant in a crapped out car singing along to '70s AM radio and eating nachos. This is 'Am-ur-ica,' love it or leave it, whatever it is. It's kind of gross, mostly sad, a place where chicken is squeezed out of a tube and people eat it until they too resemble giant tubes. Trash is everywhere. What fun!

A 'Thelma & Louise' u-turn

In the first 20 minutes of the film, Tammy hits a deer with her car, gets fired from her shitty job and discovers her milquetoast husband (Nat Faxon) is having an affair with the pop-eyed Olive Oyl (Toni Collette) from next door. In spite of the level of injury and insult sustained, there is no real rage here, only a fit of pique, like that of an overgrown toddler. Even as her life is falling apart, disgorging its contents like a suitcase full of giant underpants, she is bullishly propping up her ego and its demands. She stomps next door to her mother's house (played by Allison Janney), demands money and a car, and hits the road with her aging alcoholic grandmother Pearl (played by Susan Sarandon).

It is the presence of Ms. Sarandon that most implies that you are about to get a film that you do not get. It sometimes feels as though the ghost of Ridley Scott's film is pasted overtop. Maybe it's just the sight of Ms. Sarandon in a juke-joint parking lot, but this time instead of shooting a redneck, she just has sex with him all night long. But there are more scenes that seem weirdly lifted and distorted, as though the idea was to rob the earlier film's intent by substituting its opposite. We get scenes of Sarandon staring wistfully at the beauty of nature (in Thelma & Louise, if you will recall this happens in the moonlit desert to the sounds of Marianne Faithfull's song "The Ballad of Lucy Jordan"). In McCarthy's film, Tammy interrupts this reverie by ramming her car right through the middle of the natural world.

Maybe it's not fair to compare one film to another; one is a comic tragedy, the other a tragic comedy -- I'll leave you to decide which is which. But all the way through Tammy, the yearning to see Thelma & Louise sharpened and focused until it hung under my ribs like an ache. The experience was weird enough to follow me home afterwards, where I watched the earlier film, like rinsing myself in something cool and clean.

Unlike most road trip movies, Tammy never really gets far from home. The characters are not catapulted onto the highway of life, but bounce about like they were inside a pinball machine, randomly flung through variously ill-conceived plot points, never stopping long enough for you to care much about what is happening. Tammy and Granny Pearl get drunk and drive around a farmer's field at night. Tammy breaks a Jet Ski. Old people have sex in a car. The narrative only takes aim when the pair get into a parking lot brawl with a couple of teenagers and end up in the slammer. Tammy robs a fast food joint in order to bail out grandma, tries to give the money back, goes on the lam, is arrested after a lesbian pool party and spends eight weeks in jail. After she has made her amends to society, she is reunited with family and friends and is rewarded with a great new life, a good-looking moron and a new hairdo. It is fitting that the action ends in Niagara Falls, a place that turned one of the greatest natural wonders into a sad plastic theme park.

There isn't a great deal of point to indicate the film's many problems, including woeful miscasting, egregious writing and some strange focus problem. Most of the A-list cast doesn't have anything to do at all, especially poor old Sandra Oh, who plays a lesbian trophy wife. She gets perhaps a half-dozen lines and is mostly reduced to standing around, looking perplexed. So too, Nat Faxon and Toni Collette, people with genuine talent and ability, are reduced to being little more than cardboard cutouts.

The film fails to even maintain the integrity of its central character. Tammy begins her journey full of foul-mouthed braggadocio, and ends up weirdly beatified, mouthing sanctimonious blarney about doing the right thing. But nothing in this film is right. It grinds gears, spins its wheels and changes course so drastically that the effect is like metal grinding on metal, the entire thing suffused with the acrid tang of burnt out motor. In a word, it stinks.

Against the 'fatface' film genre

At a certain point in the film, you will probably have figured out that something even more insidious is afoot. Or maybe on wheels. This is not really a comedy at all, but a sentiment-ridden cautionary tale. The key indicator is delivered in a preachy speech from Kathy Bates, playing a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps lesbian entrepreneur, who informs Tammy that she should stop waiting for handouts and work hard in order to be rewarded. The tone is instructive, like the one you would use to speak to a child, since that is essentially what Tammy is. Her crimes, such as they are, are bratty, but never any more than that. The worst she can manage is to knock over store displays and wreck that Jet Ski.

Even her stint as a criminal is not much more than a prank. After robbing a fast food franchise, she gives the loot back the very next day. Genuine outlaw stuff is never even attempted.

582px version of TammyMovie_610px.jpg
Melissa McCarthy hangs on in scene from 'Tammy': A class war on wheels.

But the worst sin of the film is the river of self-hatred that runs underneath the action, especially in scenes where Tammy's size and appetite are played for cheap laughs. Let's call it fatface instead of blackface. How hilarious that she thinks she is sexually attractive to men. Let's put her in pants the size of sleeping bags and make her fight raccoons for doughnuts. Let the chuckles rain down. Except that they don't. The film wants to have it both ways, for us to laugh at Tammy and feel sorry for her at the same time, but the two things cancel each other out. The only thing the film seems to dislike more than large women are poor people. Put the two together, and you have a class war on wheels.

The moralizing tone renders everything further suspect, as all of the things that make for great and glorious road trip movies are systematically undone. Granny Pearl isn't a free spirit but a mean old drunk with a promiscuous streak. The tone is ultimately punitive. Poor people are dumb, they like junk food, cheap sex, bad booze and chainsaw carved wooden eagles. Don't they know the consequences of their actions will catch up with them? Silly poor people! They must go to jail to learn some contrition.

Tammy is not alone in her circular quest for self-discovery. Maybe there should be an entire genre of films called "Poor White People Problems" where dissatisfied folk leave their unfulfilling lives, encounter colourful yokels (you can alternate hippies, rich lesbians, or an especially charming dog) and return with a deeper appreciation for the normative order of things. Nothing is different, really, but at least they feel better about it all. Many, and I do mean many films, retrace this pattern in lockstep formation so much so that it starts to seem bizarre at a certain point.

No exit

Mainstream culture has always been about entrenching itself as the only way, the only means to exist. What a film like Tammy says is that there is no escape. The film exists in a box, or maybe correctly, on a track, like one of those carnival rides, where the cars go round and round on a dinky little roundabout. If you really want to break free, that is precisely what you must do: break something, hurtle your dinky car off of the track and head out on the highway, trailing bits and pieces of torn up metal.

But here is where something unexpected happens. As much as I hated Tammy, it reminded me of the films that I love, genuine road movies, where people do whatever they must to make a clean getaway.

I still remember the first time I saw Thelma & Louise at a preview screening in 1991. I didn't know anything about the film. I went because it was a free movie. Sometimes films are just waiting for you to waltz in unprepared so they hit you like a straight shot to the jaw. That is what happened when Susan Sarandon blew away the would-be rapist; the shock was physical. I felt it in my gut. The quality that endures from that film, or that I most remember, is the sense of passing beyond the rules of normal behaviour into some strange new country, where I was free to be my truest self. Dusty, dirty, ragged and free.

Freedom is a dangerous thing. It must be quelled, restrained, and given brief and controlled license before being carefully reined back in again. But the tricky old human spirit has a way of breaking loose, time and time again. That is the glory of road movies. The reason that they endure is that moment when all the constraints, the bit and the bridle, are shucked off and we race away over the hills, giddy with the mad joy that comes from escape.

There is a price to be paid.

From Bonnie and Clyde to Kowalski and his white charger in Richard Sarafian's Vanishing Point, almost all of the most famous road movies end in the same way. However it comes, hail of balletic bullets, a fireball inferno or a leap into the unknown, life is on the line. Call it existentialist, romantic, even nihilistic -- there is something grand and glorious about risking everything for a moment of genuine transcendence. It is there when Kowalski drives headlong into a police barricade with a funny little smile at the edge of his mouth?

In an essay about existentialism and Vanishing Point, writer Geoff Ward describes the film in relation to the work of Colin Wilson: "Wilson, in The Books In My Life, during a discussion of what he describes as the 'bird's-eye view' of existence, as opposed to the normal 'worm's-eye view,' says that in the former state it is as if 'our minds cease to plod along on the level of material reality, and seem to soar up into the air. The result is an odd sense of becoming what we really are.' Describing how he thinks Wordsworth and Van Gogh achieved this state, he then adds, suitably for this essay: 'A racing driver probably achieves it driving at 100 mph.'"

Thelma and Louise pay for their freedom by hurtling off a cliff. But even as they vanish into the great blue highway in the sky, a little seed gets planted, some tiny fragment that says it is worth it, whatever price you must pay to escape. Wriggle free and race away, a wild and feral thing, no longer domesticated, safe or secure, but free to live and die on your own terms.

Or, as Thelma says to Louise, before they make their leap from life into legend, "Let's keep going."  [Tyee]

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