How do you love someone who is terrible for you? That is a central question in the Amy Jo Johnson directed and Joanne Sarazen penned film, Tammy’s Always Dying. Felicity Huffman is the titular Tammy, a suicidal alcoholic who demands so much attention that her daughter Catherine (Anastasia Phillips) has no opportunity to live her own life. Tammy drinks, smokes, curses, shoplifts, and generally fulfills every ugly stereotype of the welfare mom. When Tammy is diagnosed with cancer, and her impending death becomes more than just an attempt to be the center of attention, Catherine has to take a hard look at her own life. She has to, for the first time, consider a life without her mother in it.
Tammy’s Always Dying is a movie that does everything right but still somehow fails to be enjoyable. It is in every respect a good movie, but I can’t say that it was at all a pleasure to watch. It is well written, acted, and directed, and it skirts the line of overwrought melodrama and poverty porn.
A big part of the problem lies in the writing itself. Joanne Sarazen crafts a group of characters that feel too real. This brings up an interesting point. Just because a character is well written and feels like a real person, doesn’t necessarily mean we want to spend any time with them at all. When the characters are so thoroughly unlikeable, or so utterly passive, then it doesn’t matter how great a writer you are. The audience just won’t want to take part in their story. In that way, Tammy’s Always Dying is a great script that fails to be a good movie.
“When Tammy is diagnosed with cancer…Catherine has to…consider a life without her mother in it.”
But that writing. It is really difficult to describe. Okay, you know how you watch a movie and think, “No one would say or do that.” Well, that never happens here. As I said, everything feels very real. The dialogue and action seem less constructed than transcribed. There is a stunning level of realism to all aspects of the writing. There is a breathtaking level of honest human emotion in Tammy’s Always Dying that never seems to bleed over into melodrama.
And then there’s also the fantastic acting. To say Felicity Huffman is a good actor just seems a bit redundant at this point. We all know she’s great, and we’ve all seen plenty of examples, and she’s just as good as ever here. The rest of the cast capably keeps up with her. Anastasia Phillips, in the role of the long-suffering Catherine, is just heartbreaking as a woman beaten down by life. She has spent her whole life taking care of and resenting her mother. These feelings have so dominated her life that trying to figure out who she is without her mother becomes an existential crisis.
I’m not going to touch on Huffman’s scandal. That is not the reason to miss this movie. The reason is that it is just too bleak and depressing. Doing everything technically correct doesn’t always make for a good movie. Tammy’s Always Dying should be required watching in film study, writing theory, and film acting classes, but the rest of you can live your life happily without it.
"…does everything right but still somehow fails to be enjoyable."