For a review of “Life of the Party,”
When Melissa McCarthy, as the newly divorced, 40-something mom Deanna in “Life of the Party,” decides to re-enroll in college, my seatmate at a recent screening turned to me with a question about McCarthy’s choice of major: “What the heck is she going to do with a degree in archaeology?”
But I’m troubled by a deeper, and more existential, mystery: Why can’t McCarthy seem to make a decent movie?
Since her 2011 breakout performance in “Bridesmaids” as the loopy Megan, the actress has starred in a string of poorly reviewed duds, including “Tammy” and “The Boss” — both movies that, like this one, McCarthy co-wrote and produced with her husband, Ben Falcone. Falcone, who also directed all three, likes to give himself small, and only mildly amusing, parts in each one. Here, he’s a sensitive Uber driver who lends Deanna an ear after her caddish husband (Matt Walsh) leaves her for another woman (Julie Bowen), precipitating the action of the film.
There have been exceptions to McCarthy’s troubled track record. “Spy,” the 2015 film in which McCarthy portrayed a nebbishy, deskbound CIA bureaucrat who goes undercover as a field operative, was surprisingly entertaining. And yet despite occasional flashes of comic genius over the years, as when she impersonated former White House press secretary Sean Spicer in several “Saturday Night Live” sketches, McCarthy hasn’t consistently managed to carry a major motion picture. More accurately, the movies she has chosen to make don’t live up to her considerable abilities.
As evidence, “Life of the Party” is a largely laugh-free exercise in cliche, in which we watch a middle-aged woman, clad in ugly sweatshirts and mom glasses, attempt to get her groove back as a student, 23 years after dropping out of school to raise a kid. Most of the comedy, which milks yuks from a tired, generational fish-out-of-water shtick, comes from seeing Deanna interact with her embarrassed daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon) and the sorority sisters at the school they all attend.
Bizarrely, Maddie’s depressive, goth-y roommate is played by “SNL’s” Heidi Gardner, who, at 34, seems way to old to pass for an undergrad, even an especially mopey one. Gillian Jacobs, 35, also appears as a student, but at least her character is said to have been in a coma for eight years.
After sitting through this film, it’s a feeling I can relate to.
Many of the jokes that McCarthy and Falcone have crafted — if “crafted” is even the right word — aim squarely for the crotch, as when an errant racquetball hits Deanna’s friend (Maya Rudolph) in the groin, leading to exactly as much mirth as that experience suggests. Other wisecracks involve groaning sex-organ puns: “va-Google” and the archeaology-themed “dig-head.” (No advanced degrees for these wordsmiths, whose level of humor is middle school at best.)
One recurring gag involves Deanna’s sexual involvement with a hunky student (Luke Benward). When it’s pointed out that she’s more than twice his age, the intended laughs fail to arrive, supplanted by a cringing wave of unease.
The problem is that McCarthy is, for all intents and purposes, the foil here, playing the sensible nerd to an ensemble of weirdos that includes a sorority sister (Jessie Ennis) who insists on calling Deanna “Glenn” (after, for some reason, Glenn Close) and saying things like, “make lemons out of lemonade.” Relegating McCarthy to the role of the comedic “straight man” is yet another odd career choice. Deanna keeps reassuring her fellow party-hearty students that she “down to clown,” but McCarthy, it seems, never got the memo.
“Life of the Party,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for sexual material, drug use, some coarse language and partying. Running time: 105 minutes. ½
“Measure of a Man”
Like the sweetly self-conscious protagonist of the movie “Measure of a Man” — 14-year-old Bobby Marks, who worries about his weight while trying to navigate a summer filled with bullying and life lessons — there is a lot to love in this gently funny and wise little movie.
Based on Robert Lipsyte’s semi-autobiographical 1977 young-adult novel “One Fat Summer,” the film will speak most directly to teens who, like its hero and wryly selfaware narrator, might be concerned about their physical appearance. At the same time, its story, which also deals tangentially with class tensions, religious bigotry, ethnic prejudice and homophobia, has as much to say to those kids’ parents and grandparents, who should find the film’s message as uplifting — and its unassuming central character as charming — as young people do.
Screenwriter David Scearce’s follow-up to the 2009 Oscar-nominee “A Single Man” relocates the action of Lipsyte’s book from the civil rights-era 1950s to the post-Vietnam 1970s, retaining the setting of an upstate New York lakeside resort in the Catskills, where Bobby (Blake Cooper) and his family have a vacation cabin for the season. It is there that Bobby — one of the scorned “summer people,” in the eyes of some resentful locals — encounters bullying in the form of a sullen townie named Willie (Beau Knapp).
If Knapp’s Vietnam War veteran with a violent past is a bit heavy on cliche, his character arc nevertheless allows for some surprises. And Knapp’s performance, while one-dimensional at times, is counterbalanced by Cooper’s subtlety and unforced charisma. The young actor, so good as the portly, doomed Chuck in “The Maze Runner,” never asks for our sympathy, instead seeking — and getting — recognition for a deeply nuanced portrayal.
Over the course of the film, whose period setting is evoked by songs from the Marmalade, Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel and other offthe-beaten-track tracks, Bobby’s victimization by Willie is made worse by peripheral stressors. Bobby’s parents (convincingly drawn by Judy Greer and Luke Wilson) are experiencing strains in their marriage. He is protective of his older sister (Liana Liberato), who has embarked on a summer fling with a hunky beach-club employee (Luke Benward). And his best friend (Danielle Rose Russell) — whose oversize nose made her a fellow outcast among the beautiful people who use “summer” as a verb — has disappeared back to New York City for a few weeks.
Although “Measure of a Man” is less gut-wrenching than director Jim Loach’s only previous theatrical film, “Oranges and Sunshine” — about the cruel fate of unwanted children shipped from England to Australia during the United Kingdom’s mid-20th-century “child migrant” program — the British filmmaker shows himself to have an affinity for tales of the abuse of power.
But Bobby has a savior of sorts. A wealthy older doctor and fellow summer person (Donald Sutherland) takes the boy under his wing, offering him a job tending to his property while dispensing the kind of avuncular — even paternal — tough love that Bobby’s father seems incapable of. Sutherland’s Dr. Kahn has much insight about standing up to bullies, for reasons that reveal themselves late in the film, yet his wisdom is less specifically useful than brutally frank. However you decide to act, he tells Bobby — avoidance, turning the other cheek, fighting back — you will inevitably end up wondering whether you made the wrong decision.
Although that sounds vague, even unhelpful, it’s one of the reasons “Measure of a Man” is actually so good. As the title of this nuanced tale hints, worth isn’t determined by waist size or easy solutions, but by a man’s ability — or, in this case, a boy’s — to live with the uncertainty of his choices.
“Measure of a Man,” a Great Point Media release, is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, including some intense bullying, teen drinking, sexuality, smoking and strong language, including ethnic slurs. Running time: 100 minutes. ★★★½
In “Measure of a Man,” Bobby Marks (Blake Cooper) charms as a bullied, self-aware teen enduring a vacation in the Catskills.