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TAMMY

Debbie Reynolds is nowhere to be found but there is a convenient bachelor in “Tammy,” in which Melissa McCarthy does a better job than she’s previously managed of presenting the screen persona she’s obviously aiming at—a feminine version of Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden, the heavy-set, congenitally frustrated, blustering person who in a pinch turns out to have a sweet, sentimental side. The picture, written by McCarthy with her husband Ben Falcone (who also makes his directorial debut), is also a road movie in which she teams up with Susan Sarandon, whose presence immediately evoke memories of “Thelma and Louise” to mind (in fact, this might have been titled “Tammy and Pearl”). The result is too scattershot and episodic to work as a whole, but overall it’s a better vehicle for McCarthy than those she’s shouldered before.

McCarthy plays the title character, who’s introduced, in a series of scenes designed to appeal to her core audience, as having an unremittingly awful day. Driving to her job at fast-food restaurant Topper Jack’s in her beat-up Corolla, she smashes into a deer that she manages to resuscitate at some loss to herself. That includes her car and her job, where her obnoxious boss Keith (Falcone) cans her for tardiness, leading to the first of several hissy-fit sequences in which McCarthy trashes the joint with her typical abrasiveness. Returning to her little box house unexpectedly, she finds hubby Greg (Nat Faxon) sharing a romantic meal with next-door neighbor Missi (Toni Collette), which sends her into another frenzy. She stalks down the road to her mother Deb (Allison Janney), and when Deb refuses to hand over her car keys, agrees to accept her cantankerous grandmother Pearl (Sarandon) as a passenger on her flight to freedom when the old lady not only offers the use of her vehicle but flourishes a wad of more than six grand cash as an inducement.

This set-up, or prologue if you prefer, does not bode well for the rest of the movie. It seems designed simply to give McCarthy the chance to do a lot of the huffing and puffing that’s disfigured much of her past work, and though there are moments when she’s allowed to show a more vulnerable side, they’re few indeed. Things don’t improve in the next episode, in which, supposedly as a result of going off course in the trip they’ve to take to Niagara Falls, they wind up in Missouri (apparently to permit a gag about Mark Twain at Tammy’s expense—but the itinerary is never made very clear), and McCarthy jumps on a jet ski for a destructive slapstick ride that costs Pearl most of her bankroll. Up to this point the movie has just been more of the same McCarthy who proved irritating in the past.

Things improve somewhat from this point, however, as the bickering duo make their way, apparently to Kentucky, where boozy, horny Pearl takes up with womanizing farmer Earl (Gary Cole), leaving Tammy to be consoled by his nice mope of a son, Bobby (Mark Duplass). There follows further sequence centered on Pearl’s alcoholism that lands both grandma and Tammy in the clink—and when Pearl bails her granddaughter out, Tammy tries to secure the funds to do likewise by robbing the local Topper Jack’s franchise wearing a paper bag ion her head—a scene, featured in the trailer, that seems to go on interminably and lands precious few laughs, sacrificing much of the goodwill the picture had recently won.

Happily, matters get better again with the arrival of Kathy Bates as Lenore, a rich cousin of Pearl’s who takes the pair to the handsome estate she shares with her significant other Susanne (Sandra Oh). There they join in a big July 4 lesbian shindig where both voice their grievances against one another and bond before Tammy’s carted off for robbery and emerges from jail to the arms of her understanding dad (Dan Aykroyd) ready to reconcile with her mother and grandmother while breaking things off entirely with Greg. Of course, sweet Bobby’s waiting in the wings.

The problem with “Tammy” is that it suffers from the need to give audiences plenty of the brash, bellicose McCarthy they’ve come to expect while providing her with a more consistently likable, sympathetic side. The material focusing on the latter is obvious and heavy-handed, but it does serve to mitigate the boorishness of that concentrating on the former. It’s a mixture that’s hard to balance right—and “Tammy” doesn’t manage it particularly well, in contrast to “The Honeymooners,” for example, did in the fifties. (The horrible movie based on Gleason’s program was entirely another matter.)

Still, the movie represents an advance, even if only a partial one, for McCarthy, who’s more engaging here than she’s been previously, and though Sarandon is never entirely believable in her gray wig, she gives Pearl a credibly troubled center. Apart from Bates, who brings her savvy brand of straight-talking aplomb to Lenore, the rest of the cast is pretty much wasted, with the talented Collette given barely anything to do in a throwaway role. And Falcone’s direction is at best blandly workmanlike, apparently designed to give McCarthy and Sarandon as much leeway as possible. Technically the movie is a passable package, but without any convincing sense of place except for the final shots at the Falls.

“Tammy and the Bachelor” scored a couple of sequels, and even a television series. “Tammy” is likely to do neither.

JERSEY BOYS

Part jukebox musical and part biography of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Clint Eastwood’s “Jersey Boys” proves a disappointment on both scores. Its recreations of the group’s performances, though elegantly done, are mostly fragmentary, and however close to truth the dramatic portions of the picture might be, they come across as clichéd and flat-footed. As a result the movie is neither very entertaining nor especially enlightening.

The focus of the script by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, based on their book for the successful stage version, focuses on Valli (John Lloyd Young), nee Frankie Castelluccio, who’s introduced as a naïve sixteen-year old working in a Belleville barbershop, where his voice catches the ear of a regular, mob boss Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken). But though DeCarlo prophesies a great future for the kid, it’s Frankie’s older pal Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), a hustler who also has ties to Gyp, who introduces him to the stage. Tommy’s got a band, and though both he are his bass guitarist Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) rotate in and out of jail for petty crimes, they both realize that Frankie, with his clear, piercing falsetto, is something special, things really don’t gel for them until they add a fourth player to the group—Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), not a homeboy but a guy who doesn’t only play but writes catchy songs as well. Still, it’s rough going until they sign with flashy promoter Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle), change their name to the Four Seasons and get the dough to make a real record—the start of DeVito’s getting into trouble with mob-associated loan sharks—that they hit it really big.

Success, of course, comes at a stiff price. Frankie’s youthful marriage to hard-edged Jersey girl Mary Delgado (Renee Marino) quickly goes south as he’s off on the road all the time and she hits the bottle. Tommy’s propensity to gamble and lose big will put him deeply in debt to the sharks. Frankie’s daughters will suffer from his absence, with Francine (Grace Kelley, and later Freya Tingley) eventually running away from home and turning to drugs despite her dad’s efforts to intervene. And the band ultimately implodes, leaving Frankie to become effectively a solo act subsisting on gigs in smaller clubs and casinos as he struggles to pay off what Tommy owes. Still, years later the quartet will reunite for a “hall of fame” induction ceremony.

There’s a pat rise-and-fall trajectory to this story that may very well be true, but isn’t terribly unusual, as far as show-business sagas go. Nor, as the writers and Eastwood choose to tell it, is it particularly illuminating. A major problem is the decision to retain from the play the device of breaking down the fourth wall by having characters—the other three members of the Seasons, but not Valli—effectively narrate portions of the tale to explain circumstances and make supposedly wry observations on what’s happened. It’s a mechanism that works well on the stage but rarely does on screen—and doesn’t in this instance. Chronological difficulties also crop up: the picture mostly follows a standard timeline, but at one point—at the group’s appearance on the Ed Sullivan show—it abruptly cuts back two years to address one particular story thread. (It would have been nice if Eastwood occasionally gave us some indication of the years in which things are happening, or some larger historical context for them, but except at the beginning and end he doesn’t bother. And the awful old-age makeup at the close is embarrassing.) And the entire film suffers from a lack of clear transitions, with events simply stumbling into one another.

But even more exasperating than the structural missteps are weaknesses in characterization and direction. By the close of more than two hours, one might expect to have gotten some insight into who Frankie Castelluccio/Valli was, but as he’s presented—and played rather blandly—by Young, the fellow is never much more than a good-hearted, rather dim guy with an unusual voice, virtually a long-suffering saint. (He does take a mistress, but neither she nor Marino as Valli’s wife gets more than perfunctory treatment, though the latter does get to chew the scenery early on during her first “date” with the singer). And while Gaudio and Massi receive paper-thin treatment (though Bergen and Lomenda give perfectly adequate performances), entirely too much time is devoted to DeVito, whom Piazza tiresomely presents as a pint-sized “Sopranos” wannabe. Apart from the foursome, Walken pretty much sleeps through the role of DeCarlo, relying on his well-known mannerisms to carry his scenes, and Doyle does a gay routine as Crewe whose flamboyance would be more at home on the stage, where one is expected to play to the rafters. Joseph Russo gets a few amusing moments as Joey Pesci (yes, the future actor), the guy who introduces Gaudio to the group.

Russo brings a few chuckles to the proceedings, which they desperately need, since apart from Walken’s shtick the treatment, under Eastwood’s heavy hand, is curiously solemn (as well as overdoing the “Jersey” vibe, which is easy to do). Of course there’s some relief from the prevailing sense of gloom that the direction and Tom Stern’s cinematography, which emphasizes rather drearily brownish images, create in the musical sequences; but these are for the most part oddly truncated, though we are given a couple of more extended examples toward the close, including one under the end titles. (Earlier on there’s also the hackneyed moments when the four first come together and spontaneously pour out a perfectly calibrated rendition of a song that three of them are encountering for the first time.) Of course, it’s possible that some will simply not care for the sound the group produces. Young, Bergen, Lomenda and Piazza do an excellent job of imitating the originals, but you might be forgiven if the result doesn’t make you think that you’re attending a new “Alvin and the Chipmunks” movie. On the other hand, everyone will have to admire the attention to period detail evinced in James J. Murakami’s production design, the art direction supervised by Patrick M. Sullivan, Ronald R. Reiss’s set decoration and Deborah Hopper’s costume design.

So anyone going to “Jersey Boys” expecting an exuberant time are bound to be disappointed with Eastwood’s film, which is more an old-fashioned rags-to-riches-to-rags show-biz melodrama punctuated by a few laughs and some musical interludes.