For a re­view of “Life of the Party,”

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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.

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