There was a moment in 2011–one that happens too often in Hollywood–where a female-driven movie’s success highlighted the rarity of female-driven movies. That time it was Bridesmaids, a screwball comedy of gross-out, relatable gags co-written and starring Kristen Wiig. Still, Melissa McCarthy was the movie’s breakout star. She parlayed her raunchy character, Megan, into a full-fledged career with blockbusters like The Identity Thief and The Heat. But her newest starring vehicle, Tammy, is her most personal yet. She wrote the film with her husband and on-screen partner in Bridesmaids, Ben Falcone, who makes his directorial debut. They share the task of preserving her popular, funny brand while evolving her emotional appeal.
The result is darker than anything they’ve done before. Tammy, played by McCarthy, hits a deer with her car, gets fired from her job, and finds her husband cheating with her neighbor in the first 10 minutes of the movie. Then she runs away with her alcoholic grandmother, Pearl, played by Susan Sarandon. Their relationship is uneasy at best. “Melissa and I both say we don’t write very good jokes,” Falcone argues. “I literally start to get confused and nervous.” For them, the anatomy of a joke is more about awkward circumstances that happen to everyday people than punch lines.
“It’s about putting somebody in a situation where they have to struggle to succeed and watching them either do well or, likely in a comedy, do poorly,” he says. After all, those are the moments we remember most in life. Falcone recalls one instance growing up in the Midwest. His father forgot his own wedding anniversary. “He was going to make my mom dinner, but was careless and got distracted,” he says. “It was not cooked and he just served her a gelatinous, raw fish.” Moments like these have served as inspiration for Falcone’s writing since he and McCarthy met as part of Groundlings, the sketch comedy group.
However, their writing thrived thanks to one creative skill that many artists avoid: Excess. For Falcone, too much information and dialogue was better than leaving potentially unimportant, minute details out. He says writing something down in eight lines that could be done in two simply makes more sense, an approach that he says takes a page from the people that have inspired him: Writers and directors like Paul Feig, Judd Apatow, Adam McKay, Kristen Wiig, and Annie Mumolo. “I unabashedly stole from everyone that I’ve worked with,” he says. This surplus of information is more than just word vomit. It pinpoints the emotional trajectories of the characters. But it’s not without its pitfalls.
“We had to be careful and not have it just be two people in a car arguing,” he says of a quick scene in which Tammy and Pearl fight in the car on their way out of town–the scene was cut down from a drawn-out four minutes. However, Falcone says too many constraints would stifle them. Avoiding a too-rigorous self-editing process helped the duo understand the immaturity and sadness of Tammy. “It also allowed for a little more breadth with what Melissa’s able to do,” he says. As such, poignant, scripted moments were cut down later and on set, by means of gut feeling. By curbing the script later, more moments of comedy were born.
His decision to cross shoot with multiple cameras was also one of indulgence. “There’s lots of versions of the movie,” Falcone says. That way, actors could respond to Melissa McCarthy in multiple ways. It’s not a surprising creative decision, but one that reflects Falcone’s appreciation for improvisation and unaffected reactions that go beyond the page.
The result is a mix of prolonged sincerity and quick, unfiltered gags. “I think there’s nothing better than a comedy that also is not afraid to have those heartfelt moments,” Falcone says. “If anything was better, we felt free to go for it.” As such, Tammy gives mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a dying deer in one makeshift scene. In another scripted one, her cousin, Lenore, played by Kathy Bates, tells her to stop being a victim. He indicates he and McCarthy–through co-writing, acting, and directing–have made the movie that’s true to them.
Now it’s about encouraging people to see the movie, now in theaters. People will undoubtedly compare McCarthy’s comedic performance to her two movies in 2013, which together grossed $249,089,108 domestically. “Obviously, I want the movie to do well for billions of reasons,” says Falcone. “But it’s really nice chance for Melissa to get to play all these things and show that other side of herself.” So far, critics’ reviews have pointed out tonal inconsistencies, but it’s still faring better critically than Identify Thief. For many, blending a dramatic road trip movie with McCarthy’s trademark improvisation is an uneven viewing experience. It might be jumbled for most, but it still cements McCarthy as a foul-mouthed powerhouse.