Rock of Ages – Theatre Review: Mesa Encore Theatre, Mesa Arts Center, Mesa

Writer Chris D’Arienzo has written of his unapologetic love for musicals. But it was in his youth when he quickly realized a harsh reality: Chicks don’t trust their heart or virginity to a guy who says he’s straight but owns the original cast recording of Annie. So when the opportunity to write the book revolving around the music of 80’s big hair bands like Poison, Whitesnake and Warrant came along, the kind of rock that promises to melt your face, D’Arienzo jumped at it.

Of course, comparing Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love or Stairway to Heaven to the rock of Twisted Sister’s We’re Not Gonna Take It or Starship’s We Built This City is like placing a gourmet meal next to a mile high diet of head-banging junk food. But for a comedy jukebox musical that is only too aware of its absurdities and its overall silliness, hearing REO Speedwagon’s Can’t Fight This Feeling as two men comically express their affections for each other in dance is exactly how the songs of their ilk and of the time should be used – as a comedy backdrop to the final days of vinyl and glam rock 80s music videos, where Just Like Paradise meant living the rock ‘n roll life on the acid wash epicenter, LA’s Sunset Strip. If a fella had a dream, a fifth of jack and a decent amount of hair, there was nowhere else to be. Plus, he was having Nothin’ But A Good Time while being there.

As narrated by Lonny (a mullet wigged Max H. Reed in chunky jeans and banana-colored suspenders) Rock of Ages takes place in 1987. There are several story lines happening, all of them intentionally familiar in one way or another, inspired by the combination of early Hollywood musicals and what happened after watching hundreds of heavy-metal videos.

First, there’s Sherrie Christian (Heidi-Liz Johnson) who lives three thousand, three hundred and thirty-seven Waffle Houses away in a little town called Paola, Kanas. She’s just arrived in town hoping to make it in the movies but happy to take a job as a waitress until the auditions start. True love with a busboy who is also an aspiring rocker, Drew (Jacob Selvidge) might also be on the cards.

Then there’s the plot revolving around lead singer for the rock band Arsenal, Stacee Jaxx (Bryan Stewart). He’s in town for his final performance with his band on a double-bill with Concrete Ballz, except that Ballz are forced to drop, finally giving Drew his break as a support act in The Bourbon Room. Stacee’s back to perform in the bar because of a favor owed involving the cover-up of an occurrence in a hotel room with some Cool Whip and a baby llama. Don’t ask.

There’s also the Hollywood bar/club plot. Sunset Strip’s The Bourbon Room itself, run by aging rocker Dennis (Rick Davis, who makes a convincing aging rocker) is in trouble. German land developers, Hertz (a comically accented Todd Corbeil) and his son, Franz (Jonathan Perry Brown) are ready to buy the land, rid the area of its rock ‘n roll lifestyle, bring in the bulldozers, and knock things down, ready to redevelop the area. It’s an old Hollywood plot, one that was used yet again as the story behind the 2010 movie with Christine Aguilera and Cher, Burlesque. If you saw the 2012 film version of Rock of Ages and wondered why its central story line was changed from a land development plot to a political cleanup for some oncoming local elections, there’s your answer; Burlesque made the big screen first. But the setup, or the differences between the film and the show, are of no importance. It’s the humor, the featherbrained characters, plus the songs, and how they’re used that matters.

There’s an overall rough-around-the-edges look to the Virginia Olivieri directed show that occasionally makes things appear as though it all might soon fall apart. Some of the early dialog is lost when spoken over the band, plus there’s a looseness in performance that often occurs when transitioning from one scene to another; an actor might hesitate before talking when the dialog in the following scene should flow right in to the next sequence without missing a beat. Plus, it’s not entirely convincing to see either the Greek chorus of slutty, heavy-metal chicks dressed appropriately in their come-on tight, revealing, tartan skirts (yay!) stockings and suspenders while strutting around not in heels but in sneakers. Same with Sherrie’s absent trademark thigh-high boots and stilettos; gone for a pair of flat Adidas. I’m sure they’re more comfortable for performers when bouncing around on stage, but their absence is as though an important part of the rock vixen uniform and overall shape is missing. When 80’s music video sex symbol Tawney Kitaen slithered over David Coverdale’s Whitesnake, do you think she wore runners?

Seeing Rock of Ages again after a lengthy absence resulted with some of the same thoughts regarding the songs. It’s amazing what the passing of time can do. Music that once had classic rock ‘n rollers switching the dial to another station as soon as something by Poison or Ratt began playing suddenly acquires a fun sense of affection when heard in a different setting. It’s not exactly music snobbery, but when the guys in the video had bigger hair than the heavy-metal vixens that backed them, and some of the songs were actually ear-busting bloated versions of 70s pop tunes by Slade, such as Cum On Feel The Noize covered in the 80s by Quiet Riot, then no one was taking things seriously. And certainly, neither does Rock of Ages, which exactly as it should be.

The musical sequences are the life blood of the production. Whatever reservations you may have from time to time are forgotten when a number kicks in. Backed by an excellent five-piece band who are on-stage the whole time, it’s the songs and their staging that make this Mesa production of Rock of Ages the fun that it is. Not all of the singing sounds rock ‘n roll. Often when voices trained for the stage start rocking to heavy metal, there’s a noticeable strain that emerges in the vocals. A problem with pop/rock as opposed to most other forms of music is its broad accessibility. We all think we can sing, until we try. And that’s the same with experienced performers who can interpret Rodgers and Hammerstein to perfection but crack their chords when trying Dee Snyder. But when the cast are together as a fists-in-the-air ensemble, as with Nothin’ But a Good Time, Don’t Stop Believin’, and particularly Here I Go Again, the production is at its best.

It’s fitting that the final show of Mesa Encore Theatre’s current season should be Rock of Ages; it’s less like a closing production and more like a good time celebration, a theatrical party to let that long hair down, tease it up again, and bang it against the wall before the oncoming summer break when the company starts readying itself for its next 2018-2019 season. Look past some of the budget restricting shortcomings and you’ll enjoy yourself. Like director Olivieri, who openly admits in the program her preference for non-musical theatre, bravely dig in and get knee deep in the hoopla. When the cast gather for Don’t Stop Believin,’ you can’t resist. Heads will bang.

Rock of Ages continues in performace at Mesa Arts Center in Mesa until June 3

Pictures Courtesy of Gayla Smith Photography

Posted in Theatre

Solo: A Star Wars Story – Film Review

Despite the end results, the thing that made the Star Wars movies feel special was the time between releases. Having to wait several years until the next adventure premiered heightened expectations. The opening became an event. Even if you weren’t the space-opera’s biggest fan, or the previous outing disappointed, you couldn’t help but be swept up in just a little of the hype.

Since Disney purchased the franchise, things have been different, particularly with the introduction of spinoffs, or origin stories. It may have been two years since the first of the anthology films, Rogue One, was released, but with the openings of the new regular adventures, it now feels as though there’s a Star Wars to hype every few months, and that’s the problem. Nothing feels special. Neither does Solo: A Star Wars Story.  In fact, along with Bradford Young’s flavorless cinematography – he favors cloudy, gray skies and dimly lit interiors – the film is ultimately as dull as it looks.

An explanation of plot isn’t particularly important, especially since the studio has, once again, asked that nothing be revealed. As this is an origin story that veers away from the regular series, what can be told is that Solo centers on the early days of a youthful Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), how he got his name, how he met and teamed up with Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), the events around his early encounters with smuggler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), and his romantic relationship with a new character, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke).

The issue with the continuation of the Anthology series is how surprisingly uninteresting a story revolving around Han Solo can be. True, among fans he’s a beloved character, one of the three major players next to Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, but like an act that loses a member, then goes it alone, a whole film about the smuggler doesn’t feel enough. Cynically, it feels more like milking an idea rather than a genuine inspiration for storytelling. Solo is a good character, but it’s a character that works best when part of a team, where Skywalker, Leia, and Han support each other. I’m not even sure that the Han Solo we know from the Harrison Ford days would be all that impressed.

What many may find more interesting is the well publicized drama behind the scenes during the making of the film and how it affected the final outcome. Writer Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jonathan clearly take their Star Wars seriously and found themselves battling with original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. Having found great success with a more comedic approach to films after Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The Lego Movie, and the movie version of 21 Jump Street, the film directing duo encouraged humor on the set and incorporated a certain amount of snarky ad-lib from their central character, but the Kasdans and producer Kathleen Kennedy weren’t so happy. They wanted an adherence to the script. Lord and Miller were eventually dropped. Ron Howard was brought in.

Without seeing what Lord and Miller had filmed, it’s difficult to comment on the tone of their work. Maybe they were trying with Star Wars what Guardians of the Galaxy did for Marvel, but clearly, that free-for-all, comedic approach was not what the Kasdans wanted. Shame, because if there’s anything Solo is missing is a real sense of life and humor. Considering how cynical and snarky we already know the character to be, a youthful version of this space cowboy with an inexhaustible amount of energy might have made him even more entertainingly insufferable. But that’s not what we get. In an origin story and an adventure that doesn’t feel particularly interesting, if the film needed anything it was a strong dose of self-deprecating humor. Unfortunately, the Kasdans revere the character too much.

Director Howard, who is said to have re-shot over 80 percent of the original work, keeps the action sharply focused on speed and telling its story through movement. There are twists and turns, lots of double-crossing, and an eventual lesson for young Solo to learn: No one is ever to be trusted… except maybe Chewbacca. But while all of those laser blasting, space-craft zipping, last second escapes are expertly created and efficiently edited, they’re not particularly exciting. Perhaps for the young viewer whose trips to big screen adventures are still in the early stages, Solo will undoubtedly keep them glued to their seats, having rarely experienced such speed and action on a big screen before. But for the rest of us who’ve been around for all of the 45 years since the series first began, more of the same doesn’t do a lot, particularly when at its center is a young character not interesting enough to anchor a whole movie.

What uncritical fans bring to Han Solo is the baggage they’ve created in their minds from the previous films when he was played by an older and charismatic movie star. After the original Star Wars, followed by The Empire Strikes Back and finally The Return of The Jedi, meeting up with Solo alongside Skywalker and Leia was something akin to reuniting with old friends. If Solo: A Star Wars Story was the first film to emerge that introduced audiences to the character, your reaction to Han would not be the same. You’d leave the theater impressed with the film’s overall technical achievements, but you might be left wondering, what’s the big deal with the kid at the center of it all?

MPAA Rating: PG-13    Length: 135 Minutes    Overall Rating: 4 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Les Miserables – Theatre Review: National Touring Production, ASU Gammage, Tempe

The story goes that when producer Cameron Mackintosh opened Les Miserables in London in 1985 he was convinced he had a flop. On that October night, audiences didn’t seem to respond, while opening night reviews were less than enthusiastic. The Observer called it “witless,” while The Sunday Telegraph thought it “lurid.” Then Mackintosh received a call from the theatre.

The box-office phone was ringing off the hook. At first, Mackintosh thought they were calls of complaints, audiences wanting their money back. But no, the producer was assured; it was the opposite. Advanced performances were selling out. The negative reviews had left no impact; it was opening night word-of-mouth that made all the difference. Les Miserables wasn’t just a hit, it was massive.

That was almost 33 years ago. The show has been running non-stop in London ever since. To date, more than 70 million people around the world have seen the musical, and while the Broadway production has closed, London is still performing. At this point, the show continues to book in the West End until March of 2019, and who knows what might happen after that. Attendance has shown no decline.

Since it’s NYC opening in 1987, Broadway has seen several revivals, plus 4 national tours, the latest having begun its journey last year, 2017, where much of the staging comes from the new production design of the 2014 revival. And it’s that production that opened last evening at ASU Gammage in Tempe. With its new look, a change of lighting design, and a backscreen projection of 19th-century France, all adding to a better clarity of storytelling, you can’t help but wonder how different that reserved opening night audience in 1985 would have responded had they seen how far the show has developed over the years, the one that Gammage audiences saw last night.

Outside of the regional productions produced in the valley, if this is a return visit to the national tour, and it’s been years since you last saw the sung-thru musical, here are some things to consider. There’s no longer a turntable. Plus, the overall scenic design is new, the sets inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo. A large backscreen projection, its images slowly moving as characters walk through the Parisean streets, add an extra layer of imagined odor to the downtrodden, miserable existence of its people. And look closely at the opening where the prisoners are doing hard labor, rowing the massive oars below deck on a ship (a design change, inspired from the opening of the film); you’ll see projected splashes of water.

But there are flaws. With each new revision comes a new approach to the show’s only genuine comical episode, Master of the House, a he said/she said account of life in a small country inn, as sung by the reprehensible Thenardiers (Allison Guinn and J Anthony Crane). What used to be a fairly restrained sequence where one character contradicted the claims of the other and the laughs came directly from the lyrics of the catchy, oom-pah-pah sing-a-long, has developed into an overly broad sketch of over-the-top manners where the low-rent thief and his unprincipled wife have way too much messy business to get through. Thenardier even slaps and fist punches his guests while singing how he secretly bilks them. If there’s one scene that needs a return to the way it was, it’s Master of the House. Though Madame Thenardier’s equating of her husband’s appendage with a baguette then cutting off the end for a more realistic look at its size is funny.

There’s also the lighting. The style appears to favor a design based more on the achievement of shadows and fog. For some scenes, the dimly lit approach works well, as with the exterior of Valjean’s house by the gated fence. An eye-catching dusty brown glow envelopes the area, aided by the use of the two large gas lamps that flank the opening of the tall gate. Then there’s the cafe where the idealistic students meet as they prepare for revolution. Shards of light from the outside world shine in from the high-top windows and beam down like spotlights on the characters below. But there are also times when the dark, atmospheric shadings find it difficult to always know what you’re looking at. While focusing on a crowd scene and trying to make out exactly what it is you’re supposed to be watching, you miss the moment of impact of a runaway cart pinning and crushing a victim to the ground.

Yet, despite the appearance of the production and all the technical elements that add to an overall thrilling theatrical experience (Javert’s jump from the bridge is breathtaking), it’s the sound more than the look that becomes the most striking element of all. The singing throughout is outstanding. It’s not just the powerful, robust voices of the ensemble, but also the solos, without exception.

From Fantine’s pathetically heartfelt I Dreamed a Dream, as sung by Mary Kate Moore in the first act, to Marius’ haunting Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, as sung by Robert Ariza in the second, there is not a weak voice in the cast. When local valley talent and Valley Youth Theatre alumni Nick Cartell as Valjean performs Bring Him Home, the show doesn’t simply stop, it lingers in its own timeless zone. Audiences are elevated in the sound of a song so expressively delivered, the moment is transporting. This may rank as the most complete and moving rendition of Bring Him Home you’ll either see or hear.

Pictures Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

Les Miserables Continues at ASU Gammage, Tempe until Sunday, May 20

Posted in Theatre

Deadpool 2 – Film Review

It takes almost fifteen minutes to get to the opening credits, but once you’re there, it’s safe to say that everything seen so far is exactly what Deadpool fans of the first were hoping for. After the huge success of the 2016 film – a success that surprised no one other than a nervous studio – Deadpool 2 continues in exactly the same self-deprecating, violent, yet laugh-out-loud way as the first, just louder and with more velocity.

As with the 2016 release, from the get-go there are jokes made at Hugh Jackman’s expense accompanied by Air Supply’s All Out Of Love that would be criminal to repeat, except that the poster does it for you. From The Studio That Killed Wolverine it declares at the top. As with the first film, you can only hope that Jackman possesses thick skin.

Then the faster-then-lightening pre-credit sequence continues. Wade Wilson/Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) declares, “Hit it, Dolly,” and proceeds to slice and dice an endless array of bad guys, accompanied on the soundtrack to Dolly Parton’s Nine to Five. Once the battle is done and not quite won, Deadpool runs back to his awaiting taxi, dives into the back seat and yells at the driver to move. Was it mission accomplished, the driver asks as the taxi speeds off. “In a George W. kind of way,” the superhero replies.

Then there are the opening titles which, like the first film, has fun with the credits. Again, quoting too many lines from a movie that is built on nothing but quotable lines is a criminal act. In Deadpool, a spoiler alert has little to do with twists and turns of the plot, it’s repeating too many quips. But watching a parody of a latter day James Bond styled credit sequence while being told that the film was directed ‘by one of the guys who killed the dog in John Wick,’ is too hard to resist. The real credits will run at the end.

Once the titles are done, there’s a whole film to follow, but a description of what happens is hardly important. Besides, the studio itself has already asked reviewers at the screening not to reveal story secrets. What you’ll remember the most as you tell others of what you’ve seen is not so much the Terminator-like plot of a time-traveling cybernetic soldier, Cable (Josh Brolin) who’s come back from the future to stop an event from happening, but the jokes and stunts that surround the situations.

After a hilarious barroom scene where Deadpool drowns his sorrow with booze while singing Yentl’s Papa, Can You Hear Me? then comparing the line with Frozen’s Do You Want to Build a Snowman? the cancer-stricken superhero is off on another adventure, kicking butt and taking credit.

Nothing is sacred. There are references to Annie, Patrick Stewart, Michael Keaton’s Batman, Josh Brolin’s Thanos, and Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes, with a replay of the famous Say Anything scene with the boom box held above John Cusack’s head. When Deadpool battles with Cable for the first time, he declares, “You’re so dark. Sure you’re not from the D.C. universe?

Deadpool 2 is a graphically violent, live-action, comic adventure; a parody of any Warner Brothers type animated short you’ve seen, lengthened to just under two hours. It’s an ‘R’ rated superhero movie with laughs among the mutilations that earns its adult rating. The film is as much a gift to those who have had it with the glut of superhero films as it is to the career of Ryan Reynolds, who, after several misfires has found his level with Wade Wilson. And at this point of the review, that’s all that needs to be said.

Jokes, quips, and fourth-wall-breaking asides are shot faster than bullets from an automatic weapon. Some hit, some don’t, but they keep coming. It’s an energy that never subsides. And even if, by the end, you can’t quite remember the details of the busy business and how it all occurred, it doesn’t matter. You’ll laugh just as much on a second viewing as you play catch-up with all the flash, bang, wallop you missed on the first.

MPAA Rating: R   Length: 119 Minutes    Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Breaking In – Film Review

Running for a brief 88 minutes, the violent home invasion thriller with the generic title, Breaking In, wastes no time in establishing things.

Shaun (Gabrielle Union) is mom to daughter, Jasmine (Ajiona Alexus) and younger son, Glover (Seth Carr). We never know much about them, or where they live, or even what mom does for a living. All we know is that Shaun’s estranged father is dead and his considerably large, luxurious, and well protected estate, situated somewhere in the middle of the Wisconsin countryside, is ready to be sold.

There are references to dad having been something of a bad guy and how his home is probably the result of years of ill-gotten gains, but it’s never clear. We just accept that he was a ne’er-do-well. Shaun, who ran from dad’s parenting at the first opportunity, will now return to reap the benefits, once the real-estate agent sells the place. Shaun and the kids are there for the weekend to get things ready.

But the moment they enter the secluded property, there’s already the feel that something is definitely wrong. The security system is not functioning. Shaun puts it down to a probable power shortage. Her computer savvy son resets the alarms. Then there’s the garage door that’s slightly opened. Could be a result of that power issue; it happens. But the real give-away is the hand-held point-of-view shot that views the kids from across the room. They don’t know it, but we do: there’s someone in the house.

When Shaun steps outside to talk on her cell and order pizza, it all begins. There are four bad guys; three in the house, one outside. The kids are forcibly grabbed and locked away in a room upstairs. Mom is attacked while on the phone. But there’s one thing the burglars never considered. Like her departed father, Shaun is tough. A quick elbow slam and a stab to the chest from a piece of broken glass found on the concrete knocks her attacker to the ground. She drags him off into the woods and ties him up.

The leader of the foursome, Eddie (Billy Burke) looks irritated from the beginning. He thought the house would be empty. All that was required was to disable the security, find the safe, work out the combination, open it, then get out with $4 million of liquidated assets. The gang had ninety minutes in which to do it. That was the time given once the security system failure triggered the police. But now there are hostages, plus a missing burglar, and a determined mom on the loose. “She’s smart,” Eddie tells his men. “She knows how to handle herself.

Things get violent as the minutes tick, particularly when Maggie (Christa Miller), the real-estate agent unexpectedly turns up and knocks on the door. Realizing what’s now at stake and how far these burglars are willing to go, Shaun becomes more resourceful with her attempts to rescue the kids. Violent Latino burglar (Richard Cabral) and the less than bright spark, Sam (Levi Meaden) think that Shaun has probably left the grounds to get help, but Eddie knows better. “Moms don’t run,” he tells them.

Little blood is spilled, but there are plenty of ugly threats, menace, and violence along the way as Shaun is pressured to act in a manner she presumably never knew she had in her. Though maybe she did. Near the final confrontation, she looks Eddie in the eye and states with a low, deliberate growl, “After tonight, it’s clear you have no clue what I’m capable of.” It’s one of those moments designed to get the Friday night multiplex crowd cheering. So is the moment when the huge knife is pulled and Shaun pauses long enough before the kill to declare to a burglar, “You broke into the wrong f***ing house!” At the press screening, the audience whooped and hollered. It’s that kind of film.

There’s no first or second act in Breaking In. The film goes straight for the climactic third after just a few concise moments of setup. It’s short, taut, and does exactly what you expect a home invasion thriller to do without bothering with any pesky time-consuming character details or backstory, plus there’s a no-nonsense, determined mom at its center. “You’re a woman alone at the mercy of strangers,” Eddie tells Shaun over a speaker, as if we needed an update on the story so far. But it’s clear it’s the strangers who should be doing the worrying.

Payback Is A Mother, declares the poster in ominous looking letters, larger than the actual title, intentionally positioned for a release to coincide with the American Mother’s Day weekend celebration. It’s a savvy marketing approach.  But a word of advice. I wouldn’t take mom If I were you.

MPAA Rating:  PG-13   Length: 88 minutes   Overall Rating: 5 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Life of the Party – Film Review

Following a similar path beaten by Rodney Dangerfield 32 years ago, comic actress Melissa McCarthy goes back to school where her daughter studies. She wants to finish her education and finally get that degree that was almost within reach two decades earlier, interrupted by a marriage and a pregnancy.

Co-written by McCarthy and her real-life husband, Ben Falcone, who also directed and has a small role as a sympathetic Uber driver, Life of the Party begins with that family moment when parents become emotional; they’re dropping their teenage daughter off for the beginning of college. With her middle-aged mom hair curls and garish mom sweaters, the kind with colors and designs that challenge the eye, Deanna (McCarthy) can’t quite let her daughter go. “I’m only 22 minutes away,” Maddie (Molly Gordon) reminds her.

Now that home is officially an empty nest, Deanna and her husband, Dan (Matt Walsh) are about to enjoy a long awaited vacation to Italy. “I’m ready for a little gondola ride with my fellow,” Deanna announces as they pull away from the college. But the husband has a different plan. “I want a divorce!” he blurts.

For some time, Dan has been having an affair with Marcie (Julie Bowen). “The real estate agent?” asks a stunned Deanna. Not just any real estate agent, Dan reminds his thunderstruck wife, “She has a respectable social media following.”

Dan and his new squeeze have it planned. He’s going to move in with the real estate agent and sell the family home. He reminds his wife that the property is in his name, and his name alone. There will be no sharing. In fact, Marcie has already begun the paperwork. After all these years, it turns out that Dan is, and probably always was, a total ass.

Once the tears have subsided, Deanna pulls herself together and decides to do the one thing she had always wanted to do: finish her education and get that archaeology degree. She enrolls at the same college her daughter attends, moves in to the dorm where she shares a room with the oddball goth, Leonor (Heidi Gardner) – “I’m getting a Voldemort vibe” Deanna states – and restarts her education as a dig-head.

What follows is basically what you’ll expect. Mom embarrasses daughter, but daughter’s sorority sisters love her, so daughter reluctantly accepts that mom is on campus to stay. There’s the makeover moment where Maddie straightens her mom’s curls, has her remove the garish mom sweater, and swaps the bright red lipstick for the more subtle mauve; “My favorite,” states Deanna.

There’s the drunken frat house affair where mom becomes the life and soul of the proceedings; the house party where mom and the girls get stoned on what they think is chocolate but is really weed bark; and there’s the Back to the 80’s Party where mom in sparkly eighties garb and big hair enters the room to the sounds of Cyndy Lauper’s Girls Just Want To Have Fun. There’s also the conflict with the college mean girl, Jennifer (Debby Ryan) who sports a nose ring that when caught in the right light looks more like metallic snot. There’s even a fundraiser party where mom and the girls entice a house-load of attendees by pretending that singer Christine Aguilera will be dropping by… and guess who drops by.

Life of the Party is silly fluff. As with 2014’s Tammy and 2016’s The Boss, both co-written and directed by her husband, the film exists solely as a big screen vehicle for McCarthy’s considerable comedic talents. She’s a funny lady, though how far you’ll warm to her Deanna, or the film itself, depends entirely on how much of a fan you are of Melissa McCarthy and her middle-aged mom act. There’s also a good turn from Maya Rudolph as Christine, Deanna’s best friend. Inspired by Deanna’s campus fling with a young student, Jack, (Luke Benward) Christine’s own sex life with her husband suddenly increases.

But while you can check off the next expected situation and predict the outcome, what does impress is the lack of overly suggestive, racy, or crude humor. Despite its PG-13 rating, there for mild sexual references, the partying, and that scene where the girls get high, there’s hardly a moment of profanity or salacious smut. The humor comes mostly from Deanna’s reaction to the kind of college life she doesn’t altogether understand, and the girls’ reaction to her, though admittedly, the scene where mom and the girls trash her ex-husband’s wedding reception when high is more mean spirited than funny.

The film evaporates the moment you leave the theatre.  In fact, it’s fizzling as the final scene fades.  Plus, several characters, like Deanna’s goth roomate, Leonor, the mean girl, Jennifer, and Helen (Gillian Jacobs) a likable older student who suffered a coma for 8 years, woke up and went to college, feel like setups to lengthy gags that go nowhere; there’s no punchline.  But there are laughs along the way.

In the best tradition of farce, a dinner table scene in a restaurant where all the principle characters turn up at the same time and secrets are revealed is stolen by Rudolph, whose reaction and response to everything she sees and hears is genuinely hilarious. Plus, during the basement cloak and dagger ceremony of the girls accepting mom as an honorary sorority sister, the tradition of being whacked on the behind by a paddle is so severe, the pain lingers far longer than expected. “Is someone still hitting me?” a hunched over Deanna cries.  That’s funny.

MPAA Rating: PG-13    Length: 105 Minutes    Overall rating: 5 (out of 10)

Posted in Film