Monday, 28 May 2018

Life Of The Party (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: After being told that her husband (Matt Walsh) is leaving her for another woman, Deanna (Melissa McCarthy) decides to take her life back into her own hands and do the one thing that she always wanted to do: Get her archeology degree. She enrols herself at the same college her daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon) is attending, and as she adjusts to college life as an older student, she discovers just how much she missed out on the first time round.

You ever been in a situation where you desperately wanted something, but then when you actually get it, you realise that it’s not as good as you thought it was? That’s what’s going on with McCarthy’s decidedly more pleasant performance here. Without even a hint of the causticity of her previous high-profile works, this is a look at the more demure side of McCarthy’s on-screen persona. And quite frankly, it’s not for me. Yeah, I’ve spent long enough wanting to see more of this side of her, but as nice as it is just to watch her be a nice person on screen, I kind of miss the more sharp-tongued days. At least then, her insults usually resulted in a decent laugh, but here, it’s all too safe to really have the same impact. Gordon as her daughter is a solid fit, as their on-screen chemistry hits all of the expected milestones of a mother-daughter relationship quite breezily, while Walsh is an undiluted bag of dicks as the ex-husband, doubly so for Julie Bowen as the homewrecker/home-seller.

Jacki Weaver (good to see she’s in Hollywood to stay, from the looks of it) and Stephen Root as Deanna’s parents are a good fit in the main dynamic, managing not to overload the film on sheer parental cringe. Although, admittedly, the scene involving the three of them screaming about ham is… special, and not in a good way. Gillian Jacobs, Adria Arjona and Jessie Ennis as Deanna’s sorority sisters are particularly good as a group, while being rather inconsistent on their own terms (Jacobs’ character of Coma Girl deserves her own film, Arjona is a bit of a blank slate, and Ennis is just the dumb one), Debby Ryan as the resident Mean Girl allows for some nice Two Minutes Hate material, Chris “Dr. Spaceman” Parnell as the professor works out alright, and Luke Benward as Deanna’s romantic interest Jack does well also. Oh, and Maya Rudolph is officially my favourite thing ever; I am now totally convinced that this woman can do no wrong, and she is easily the best thing to be found here.

So, this is the third film helmed by Ben Falcone, IRL husband of Melissa McCarthy, who also co-wrote and co-produced the film. In the past, the duo have given us the middling but ultimately harmless Tammy and the inconsistent but fun The Boss. What do we get here? Well, it’s a weird hybrid of both, starting with the sense of humour on display. I hesitate to call this straight-up unfunny; a more accurate description would be that it is incredibly inconsistent. A lot of the jokes exist in the specific realm of comedy usually reserved for parents. You know the kind: The one-liners that are more punny than actually funny, and if you’re in the same room as your parents when they tell them, you feel a sudden need to retreat into your own chest like a turtle.

I’ll admit that I spent way too much of this film cringing in my seat, as not only do the one-liners feel rather off, some of the sequences go on for far longer than they need to. When Deanna has to give an oral presentation for class, the scene in its entirety is so drawn-out, so lethargic, so embarrassing to watch unfold, that actually having to give a formal presentation on Attila The Hun would be less painful of an experience than sitting through this thing. That scenario is one I have spent a lot of time trying to avoid, so it really says something when that is preferable to what we get here.

But, like I said, it’s still not entirely bad. It has its definite low points, and far too many of them for my liking, but the film still manages to get a few good hits in. For every ‘mom joke’, there’s a moment where Maya Rudolph completely owns the scene. Between this and her stand-out performance in The Emoji Movie of all things, she’s reached the point as a comedian where she can be a saving grace in decidedly lesser material. And oh boy, does she deliver here, and any moment with her on-screen honestly makes everything around them worth sitting through. And of course, there’s the restaurant scene, which basically piles on all of the possibilities for awkward comedy given the scenario and the characters. I swear, Maya’s snipe at one of the dinner guests looking like Orson Welles got the first, genuine laughing fit of the film.

I’d say that that reaction only arriving so far into the narrative would be a bad sign, but quite frankly, this narrative as a whole is a bad sign. At this point, I’m pretty sure that most people can recite the college movie formula in their sleep and this film really doesn’t do a whole lot to deviate from that. Same goes for the core premise of the older woman going back to college and being the butt of “yuck, you’re older than me!” jokes. For any story that isn’t Strangers With Candy to pull this trope off with any degree of success is a tall order, and it seems like Falcone and McCarthy knew that because this film plays it unfortunately safe across the board. The conflicts are minor, even the one between Deanna and her ex-husband, the tone stays pretty middle-of-the-road for most of the film, and the supporting cast are a little too good because they just make me think that they should have their own movies. Maya as Christine is one of them, Jacobs as ‘Coma Girl’ would be another, even Bowen’s exceptionally bitchy real estate agent would at least be good for hate-watching. Here, because it is centered so much on the placid Melissa McCarthy, it doesn’t do much to rise above the numerous other films that have already done both of its central story ideas.

And yet… even with all that said, this is another film where I can see actual merit for it that goes beyond standard audience engagement. Of all the college dorm-room stereotypes that get dallied around throughout the film, there’s one that gets a definite upgrade here: The sorority. More so than the usual giggling fits and pillow fights and all that other trite crap that most filmmakers use to show off the average college sorority, the script emphasizes the connection between the sisters. The only thing in greater number than inconsistent comedy here is how much these women take time out to compliment and look out for each other. Hell, it gets to the point where the Mean Girl of the film basically comes across as a relic, a remnant of a bygone era where male filmmakers seemed to think that women are only able to be catty with each other; bonus points for making the required “cat fight” into something not worth rolling my eyes at. The film makes it a point to show sorority sisterhood and highlight how much it strengthens those within it, right down to portraying college partying as a necessity to deal with the stresses of college courses.
For as much as this film gets wrong, it gets quite a few things very, very right, to the point where despite my aforementioned cringing while watching the film… I walked out of the cinema in a very pleasant mood. I walked away from this film feeling like I got my money’s worth.

All in all, as mesmerizingly inconsistent as this is, it still has some pretty strong points in its favour. The comedy is frequently too awkward for efficacy, the story is incredibly played-out, and the acting made me somewhat regret wanting to see more of Melissa McCarthy’s more low-key side, as this ends up being way too much of a good thing. But the cast is still quite strong, particularly Maya Rudolph outright confirming that she is incapable of wasting a performance, the comedy still gets a few decent chuckles, and as a film depicting a college sorority, it certainly highlights a lot of the community and friendship that quite a few college films tend to ignore. This is a similar situation to I Feel Pretty, where I am definitely at odds with the sense of humour on display, but I still think it has real merit as a piece of cinema, particularly for what it says about its own target audience. After seeing self-supposed ‘chick flicks’ treat their audience with so much contempt, this feels like a sign that things are looking up. A bit rocky, but up nonetheless.

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