Retro Stylings for Your Movie Weekend
A week of nostalgia awaits you at the movies. Melissa McCarthy channels 80s comedies, Terminal tries hard to resurrect the post-Tarantino neon-noir, and—in your best bet for the week—one woman goes a little Lucy in her ESL class. Deadpool 2 next week, so enjoy the odder assortment of a quiet near-summer weekend.
Life of the Party
One of these days, we’ll finally get a Melissa McCarthy movie that deserves her talents and doesn’t just desperately depend on them. Even though Life of the Party is written by McCarthy along with husband and frequent collaborator Ben Falcone, well, the wait isn’t over quite yet.
McCarthy stars as Deanna Miles, a woman whose life is upended by a sudden divorce with her husband Dan (Matt Walsh). Realizing that she spent her adult life meekly going along with other people’s wishes, Deanna decides to finish her abandoned senior year of college. It’s a positive message, as far as mid-life crises go.
This brings her into embarrassingly close contact with her daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon), who is also finishing her senior year at school, as well as Maddie’s sorority sisters. (All standard “not actually that weird” movie misfits, except for Gillian Jacobs, who injects some actual off-kilter menace as Helen.)
The idea of a former student getting into classes immediately (apparently without the need to re-take additional core requirements), and paying to live on campus despite living 20 minutes away raises some logistical questions. But, McCarthy’s comedic gifts have saved staler setups. She turns Deanna into a woman to root for, not pity, as she completes her degree, relives her youth, and gets over her spineless ex-husband.
Not that the film’s cringe comedy with a heart comes without a cost: the gentle nudges toward empowerment and inclusivity make for a welcoming message. But the steady laughs are all a bit defanged, especially for a setup about a woman whose husband has just divorced her after decades of building a life together (and who apparently still controls their finances in a way that makes her life materially difficult).
Given how much the story invests in the contrived college setup, the real missed opportunity feels like the uninhibited adult comedy nipping at the outer edges of what ended up on screen. Maya Rudolph is wickedly good as Christine, the best friend living vicariously through Deanna. And Matt Walsh can tease out more notes than should be possible when given the room to work his sad sack variations.
It doesn’t really seem like the film is trying to connect with a younger audience anyway. The film is more homage to the triumphant ‘80s teen movies that McCarthy and Falcone would have eaten up as teens, with a “Save Deanna” finale and all.
This is a good thing when it comes to the sexual politics. (Have you re-watched Revenge of the Nerds lately?) But the predictable setup makes Life of the Party diverting yet wholly forgettable.
It’s a passing grade, but just barely.
For her feature debut, writer/director Atsuko Hirayanagi expands her captivating short from three years ago, which left “Lucy” at a crossroads of self discovery.
Hirayanagi also fulfills all the promise from that earlier work, taking a cross-cultural comedic premise and layering it with heartbreak, desperation, silliness and hope.
“Lucy” is actually Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima), an unmarried office worker in Tokyo barely on speaking terms with her sister Ayako (Kaho Minami). But Setsuko is friendly with Ayako’s daughter Mika (Shioli Kutsuna), and agrees to help her out with some cash by buying Mika’s unused English lessons.
The class is taught by John (Josh Harnett), who’s a bit of a hugger and big on new identities to pair with the new language his students are learning. Setsuko gets “Lucy” and a blonde wig.
She’s intrigued, and then confused, as John suddenly quits the class and heads back to the states – with Mika.
Hirayanagi’s writing, pace and camerawork are steady and assured, as she confidently fleshes out the story her short film hinted at so smartly. There’s plenty of humor in the film, but never at the expense of a uniquely human core that’s driven by Terajima’s marvelous lead performance.
There is pain in Lucy’s past, and she’s become a soul that’s merely existing, always longing for connection. Learning a new way to communicate awakens something within her, where a race toward the unknown offers the chance of a new life beyond fake names and wigs.
Part character study, part social commentary, and part absurdist comedy, Oh, Lucy! is sneaky in the ways it touches you. Light and breezy on the outside, it’s a film with a joyful heart that can’t be denied.
Femme fatales. Hitmen. Disjointed timelines. Neon.
Sin City was interesting in 2005.
Vaughn Stein’s debut as a feature film writer/director, after many years assisting, borrows heavily from the Tarantino explosion of the Nineties and early 2000s. He drops us into a metropolitan underworld where danger intersects with madness and borrowed style tries desperately to draw attention away from lack of substance.
He does have Margot Robbie, though, so that’s a start. Robbie plays the aforementioned femme fatale in a hulking underbelly of a soundstage meant to look like a cross between a wee-hours train terminal, an insane asylum and Wonderland—all with that vacant, neon emptiness of a neo-noir.
Robbie’s Annie is a hitman masquerading as a waitress in the terminals all-night diner. There’s a hidden mastermind, a mysterious cripple, a couple of contract killers and a teacher who needs a little nudge before he’s ready to off himself.
Vaughn immediately brings Sin City to mind with his splashy comic book noirisms. It’s hard for that to feel fresh at this stage in filmdom, and his tired hodge-podging of hyper-dramatic tropes doesn’t breathe any new life into the story.
In fact, the story is the problem. It’s an awful lot of nothing, truth be told, with nary a surprise and loads of letdowns.
There is a bit in the diner that’s worth a watch. An excellent Simon Pegg waits for a train and chit chats with a borderline insane waitress (Robbie). Their chemistry is odd and welcome, and Pegg’s delivery is particularly impeccable. In these scenes, Vaughn’s writing suddenly feels engaging and unpredictable.
The core story about two killers Annie is playing against each other peters out blandly, and though the answer to any other surprise has long ago been telegraphed in, still we sit through an intolerable backstory.
Robbie does what she can, though she leans a bit too heavily on her Harley Quinn character to sell Annie’s mental state. She’s mad as a hatter, you see. We know that because she told us so in an opening voiceover narration.
Also opening in Columbus:
Breaking In (PG-13)
High Power (R)
Lu Over the Wall (PG)
Measure of a Man (PG-13)
Reviews with help from Matt Weiner and George Wolf.