It’s easy to make too much out of “the last role Felicity Huffman took before going to prison” with “Tammy’s Always Dying.” A dressed-down, alcoholic, depressed and promiscuous mother — constantly threatening suicide — and the impact that has on her self-loathing barmaid daughter?
“On the nose,” “martyred” and all that, right?
But the timing doesn’t work. This was in the can before the “college admissions scandal” broke in March of 2019.
Take away the “martyred Felicity Huffman” read, and “Tammy’s” a pretty humdrum affair — not awful, not that deep or showy either. It’s not Oscar bait, but there’s good work here, some sharp and intimate observations about co-dependency, pithy dialogue and a solid sense of (Canadian) place.
And if you want to interpret it as “atonement” for a minor scandal in the “rigged system” of American life, have at it.
Anastasia Phillips (quite good) is Catherine, the barmaid who leaves work needing to sleep off each shift in their little corner of Ontario. But she can’t. She’s got to go talk her drunken mother off the bridge — literally.
“You’re depressed because you’re drunk all the time,” she complains.
“No,” Tammy corrects her. “I drink because I’m depressed all the time.”
The kid lives down the street, which is handy when her mother might “stick your head in the oven at the end of every month.” Mom corrects that, too — electric, not gas.
Catherine works with one of Tammy’s exes, the still-fatherly Doug (Clark Johnson), and endures a humiliating and degrading sexual affair with married lowlife Reggie (Aaron Ashmore) consummated in store rooms or the back seat of her beater car.
Her one confidante in all this is Doug, who lets her revisit her childhood with a weekly lunch at a nice restaurant in Toronto, a chance to remember her delusional tween ballet years and escape the horrors of a suicidal, clingy mother.
Tammy’s an embarrassing, unfiltered blurter. Whatever obnoxious insult or crude come-on (to another barfly) that comes to mind comes out of her mouth.
Catherine? She’s way past “over it.”
And then Mom gets cancer. Tammy is numb to the diagnosis, and the prognosis of “months.” Catherine can’t take one more wrinkle in Mom’s all-consuming neediness.
“If she wants to die, LET HER!” And “Killing herself would be the least selfish thing she’s ever done!”
But Doug pushes Tammy to clean up, make amends, to “go out a better woman.”
Will she? Or will Tammy still to her credo?
“I’m not a good person. I’m a good time.”
The screenplay by Joanne Sarazen kind of unravels in the third act. The struggle to find something to do with obvious bits of foreshadowing doesn’t help an overall sense of “incomplete” that hangs over the picture after its inevitable resolution.
But what is indie cinema if it doesn’t immerse you in tough lives and a working class sense of place? More scenes in the bar, as over-familiar as they are, might have helped. What movies and TV used to call “our regulars” are alcoholics, day drinkers. It’s a sad place where everybody has a sad story and a weakness.
At least director Amy Jo Johnson gives us a rare peek at that Canadian obsession for jelly donuts. You betcha.
As showy as it is meant to be, as deflating as the subject matter is, “Tammy’s Always Dying” is still worth your while. And if we want to regard this as an act of atonement, so be it. Huffman reminds us she’s a fine actress who isn’t afraid to “go there,” haggard, torn fishnets and never a hint of glamour as she hangs from a bridge or dives into a bottle or jelly donut.
MPAA Rating: unrated, sex, alcohol abuse, profanity
Cast: Felicity Huffman, Anastasia Phillips, Clark Johnson, Aaron Ashmore and Lauren Holley.
Credits: Directed by Amy Jo Johnson, script by Joanne Sarazen. A Quiver release.
Running Time: 1:29