LIFE OF THE PARTY
In Life of the Party, Melissa McCarthy plays the doting mother of a college senior who, after being dumped by her husband of 20-plus years, pursues her dream of an archeology degree by enrolling in her daughter's university. I consequently expected 90-odd minutes of campus slapstick as well-meaning, accident-prone, profoundly uncool Mom mortifies her kid in classrooms and at Greek mixers and whatnot – just like the trailers indicated, and just like in the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield hit Back to School. But amazingly, that's not what we get. It turns out that instead of comedic stakes involving a child's embarrassment, there aren't any stakes at all.
I mean, sure, there are occasional speed bumps on Life of the Party's road to self-actualization: a pair of generic Mean Girls who diss McCarthy's Deanna for being old and out of touch; Deanna's blandly hostile ex-husband (Matt Walsh) and his snippy gal pal (Julie Bowen); our heroine's paralyzing fear of public speaking. But it takes only one scene for the housemates of Deanna's daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon) to become enchanted by Mom's friendliness and baking skills. It takes only two scenes for Maddie herself to cherish her mother's presence, urging her to attend frat parties and become a sorority sister. The cutest guy on campus (Luke Benward's Jack) is instantly smitten with Deanna, and begins following her around like an endearingly horny puppy. Deanna's best friend (Maya Rudolph) excitedly cheers her every move. Deanna's encouraging archeology professor (Chris Parnell) admits that she's his favorite student. Deanna's shut-in Goth roommate (Heidi Gardner) becomes quickly obsessed with her new “best friend” – and only in a mildly creepy way. The woman's grades are excellent. Her social life is active. Her sex life is really active. And Deanna's parents (Jacki Weaver and Stephen Root) applaud their daughter's return to college, with Dad willing, even eager, to shoot Deanna's ex-husband for good measure. In the performer's star vehicles, McCarthy is traditionally, and deservedly, the beneficiary of enormous audience goodwill. Life of the Party may be the first of her movies in which McCarthy's co-stars offer more support than we do.
There's nothing inherently wrong with a film delivering quite this much geniality, and there's something both sweet and kind of subversive about McCarthy's and Falcone's script viewing modern college life with glasses this rose-colored; even the walks of shame wouldn't be out of place on a Disney Channel sitcom. Yet movies thrive on conflict, and there's so little of it in Life of the Party that you can easily find your mind wandering toward inconsistencies and direct steals that might've scooted past us were the narrative not this flimsy. I was only mildly bothered when, having mentioned the “Voldemort vibe” she got from her roommate, Deanna appeared perplexed by Jack's later reference to Dumbledore. I was less forgiving, however, when we learned that Deanna's ex was paying her tuition even though she'd burned all of his personal possessions, and when we were first told of the woman's public-speaking phobia, which didn't at all jibe with her dance-floor comfort when doing the backwards worm in front of dozens of shrieking Greeks. (Also irritating: the film being so colossally uninterested in Deanna's daughter that we never learn whether the nice kid that Maddie cuddles up to is a longtime beau or a one-time hook-up or a gay bestie.) Meanwhile, in the post-Bad Moms age, we're pretty much used to scenes of female cast members causing wanton slapstick damage in slow motion, which we get here in Deanna's and company's pot-fueled attack on a wedding-reception hall. Did we also need such a specific callback to Bridesmaids, with that film's Wilson Phillips reunion replaced by an awkward Christina Aguilera drop-in? (And with McCarthy again in attendance?)
As a director, Falcone doesn't make any of this go down easier, considering how rife his latest outing is with unnecessary (and really close) close-ups, and how his flat, unimaginative staging mucks up routines that should have been sure-fire. (A well-written arbitration sequence featuring McCarthy, Rudolph, Walsh, and Bowen might've been a classic if Falcone demonstrated any facility in camera placement, or knowing how to edit the cross-fire banter for maximum laughs.) But as long as McCarthy remains a superstar, she and Falcone – one of Hollywood's few remaining Power Couples – will probably continue to dole out these sorts of unthreatening yet middling comedies every couple of years. And as 2014's Tammy, 2016's The Boss, and Life of the Party suggest, these efforts will probably continue to be bearable as long as their star continues to deliver the verbal, physical, and sentimental goods, and as long as sensational character actors keep showing up to take part. All of the aforementioned performers – plus the winningly eccentric Gillian Jacobs as a sorority sister recently recovered from an eight-year coma – provide varying degrees of genuine amusement, with Rudolph, Gardner, and Benward emerging as the finest among near-equals. But I also quite liked seeing Bowen cast as an obnoxious real-estate agent, given that she plays the wife of one on TV's Modern Family. In a comedy with an unfortunate lack of belly laughs, I'll always gratefully accept a meta- one.
At some unspecified point in the years since the rating's debut with 1984's Red Dawn, the Motion Picture Association of America apparently made a collective decision regarding the employment of a particular curse word in PG-13 movies, in that the “F” bomb can be dropped once, but only once. In director James McTeigue's action thriller Breaking In, that “once” was unquestionably going to be reserved for the bad-ass heroine played by Gabrielle Union, just so we could all revel in hearing this fiercely protective mother spit that word out at the movie's chief bad guy right before she dispatched the surly creep. And so, for a while, it was kind of fun to witness to film's staunch insistence on preserving a PG-13 rating through vicious thieves muttering “frickin'” this and “freakin'” that, and, in one instance, Billy Burke calling someone “a full-on psychopath” when the actor was clearly saying “f---ing psychopath.” (There's so much hilarious looping of dialogue in this thing that it's like watching a Breaking In converted for broadcast television.) But without getting too “Won't someone think of the children?!?” about all this, was the MPAA ratings board so relieved to hear the “F” word a single time that they immediately granted a PG-13 stamp of approval without considering the film as a whole? This is a movie in which Union, on numerous occasions, is violently punched in the face, she and teen daughter Ajiona Alexus (who also gets slapped) are threatened with rape, kidnapped children are routinely terrorized, a burglar is berated – twice – for being an “on your knees” prison bitch, a neck is broken, stomachs are gutted, a man is stabbed in the heart with a broken wine glass … and the MPAA is worried about language? I'm sorry, but that's f---ed up.
So, unfortunately, is Breaking In, which finds Burke and a trio of henchman attempting to rob a heavily secured domicile in the woods, and their plan waylaid by the arrival of the deceased homeowner's daughter and her two kids. After a moderately stylish intro detailing the demise of said homeowner, McTeigue and screenwriter Ryan Engle waste no time ensuring that the on-screen happenings are as unbelievable as possible, from the senseless (and, I'm pretty certain, criminal) excuse for Union's return to that vacation home to her grade-school son (Seth Carr) proving himself a prodigious master of high-tech operating systems. But they also waste to time making the situation both as silly and ugly as possible, the former exemplified by Union's sneakers that make less noise than slippers, and the latter by the convincing yet deeply unpleasant presence of Richard Cabral, whose every vile appearance makes you want to cower – largely because of how badly the American Crime actor's talents are wasted in a grossly stereotypical role. As thrillers of this type go, Breaking In is nowhere near as hateful as last weekend's Bad Samaritan or the repellant Traffik from a few weeks back, and Heaven knows the smart, beautiful, gloriously present Gabrielle Union is easy to root for and delivers about as fine a portrayal as her material allows. Yet I was still relieved for the experience to be over, as my head could finally stop throbbing from the clanking dumbness of the dialogue. “Moms don't run,” says Burke of his unexpectedly resilient nemesis. “Not when their babies are trapped in the nest.” Of course not, Billy. Moms with nest babies more often fly.