Just in time for Mother’s Day weekend comes two eminently bland, safe, and unmemorable movies that generally waste their female stars. Melissa McCarthy has proven herself one of the most funny and dynamic performers in comedy, but Life of the Party is a listless and groan-inducing back-to-school comedy that feels tonally off, adopting the persona of its tacky, talky, and awkward middle-aged mother. You would think the premise would lead to plenty of R-rated shenanigans, but instead the film adopts a very sedate PG-13 atmosphere, dulling the wild collegiate experience into something so predictable and safe as to be completely inoffensive. It feels like a caricature reminiscent of a feature-length rendition of a Saved by the Bell: The College Years. McCarthy falls back on tired, corny jokes that don’t attempt to be anything else, and the supporting cast is left to gasp and grasp for anything to spark laughs (special credit Gillian Jacobs for doing everything possible as “coma girl”). McCarthy is best when given room to improvise and discover interesting odd angles for jokes, but she also needs a stronger comedic vision, and that’s not going to come from husband/co-writer/director Ben Falcone (Tammy). It feels like they had a general outline for a comedy and, in grand collegiate tradition, pulled an all-nighter and sloppily finished a serviceable draft. I chuckled about four times, mostly involving an exuberant Maya Rudolph and the one clever structural payoff revolving around a much younger fraternal hookup. Mostly, Life of the Party lacks a sense of stakes, credibility, surprises, development, and laughs, though the middle-aged mothers in my preview screening lapped it up, so take my opinion with a grain of salt if the trailer seemed moderately appealing for you.
On the other side, Breaking In is a mundane, low-budget home invasion thriller that disappears almost instantly from memory. I’m struggling to even come up with enough to say in this review that isn’t just repetitions of the word “boring.” Gabrielle Union (Bring it On) plays a mom who brings her two children to visit the estate of her recently deceased, estranged father. Also visiting is a trio of stupid robbers searching for a hidden stash of money. They take the kids hostage though keep them locked in a room and in little danger. Union’s determined mother must break in and save her children. It’s a thriller without anything genuinely thrilling to experience, as each chase or near miss hums along ineptly and tediously, finding the least interesting conclusion. There are no well-drawn suspense set pieces to quicken the pulse, no clever escapes or near-misses, no intriguing villains with strong personalities, and no entertainment to be had through its strained 88 minutes. There are glaring plot holes, chief among them why doesn’t she just flag down a car and call the police rather than hack it alone. Depressingly, Breaking In is actually directed by James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) who seems to have exhausted any sense of style and excitement he may have had earlier in his directing career. It feels like nobody really cared about the movie they were making, and that lack of enthusiasm and effort translates into one very boring and very poorly written and executed thriller. Union deserved a better showcase but, then again, the audience deserved a better movie too.
Life of the Party: C-
Breaking In: D+
It’s only been three years since the first book in the Twilight series was published, but man has it already become a phenomenon among young girls. Author Stephenie Meyer was a Mormon housewife who professed to never having seen an R-rated movie, so of course she seems like a natural fit for vampire literature. Meyer has taken the torch from Anne Rice and created an insanely popular series of books that chronicle the lives of humans and vampires in the rainy Northwest United States. I had never heard about the books until the spring of 2008, months before the hotly anticipated release of the fourth and final book in the series. Then again, I’m not a pre-teen girl, so excuse my ignorance. My wife Karen and I decided to bear the hormonal, high-pitched squeals and sit with a packed house to experience the movie with the Twilight faithful. Judging from my screening, I think it might be mandatory for all girls between the ages of 7-14 to go see the Twilight film.
Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart, Into the Wild) is the new kid in school. She’s moved back to live with her father (Billy Burke), the sheriff of a tiny Washington town with a population of 3,000 people. Bella has her sights set on the Cullen family, a group of weird kids that are pale and keep to themselves. Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) goes out of his way to avoid Bella, and of course this just makes him more mysterious. He tells her that they shouldn’t be friends. Then one day at school he saves her life by stopping a van from crushing her. Bella suspects that this Cullen kid might not be a usual teenager. He’s not. He’s a vampire who hasn’t aged since 1918. Bella is smitten with her otherworldly protector. It’s your typical high school relationship. Bella doodles Edward’s name on her notebook and falls in love with an unattainable boy. Edward must resist the constant temptation to drink Bella’s blood (he and his vamp family are “vegetarians,” meaning they only drink animal blood).
Let’s examine the distinctions of the Twilight vampire incarnation. Now, the vampire myth is not written in stone, so it allows for creative interpretation. Some vampires cast a reflection, others don’t. Some vampires are thwarted by garlic and crosses and others are not. Some vampires sleep in coffins and others just prefer a comfy mattress. It seems that the two characteristics that follow every vampire tale involve the insatiable thirst for blood to drink and the fact that sunlight is a vampire’s enemy. Meyer’s vampires don’t even adhere to this. They walk around in the daylight with no concern; in fact, we learn they never sleep at all, which means they must have all the late night infomercials memorized by this point. Removing the danger of daylight from the vampire myth proves to be somewhat troublesome decision. This is because, when you think about it, there are little to no drawbacks or limitations to being a vampire in Meyer’s world. Yeah you’ll live forever and crave an unorthodox beverage, but as a vamp you get super abilities, super strength, super speed, and a laughable diamond-like glow when the sun hits your exposed skin (think of those people that encase cell phones in tacky “bling” jewelry). If this is what it means to be a vampire in Meyer’s world then I wouldn’t be surprised if every freaking teenager in the world was signing up to join the army of the undead. The vampire myth brings with it plenty of baggage but it also helps to patch up holes in a narrative; just introducing the concept of a vampire allows an author some free pass with the details. However, vampire tales bring with them a certain set of expectations due to audience familiarity with the popular concept. I could care less if Meyer’s vampires have fangs or chow down on garlic bread, heavy on the garlic, but she loses me when she has vampires roam around during the day with little to no drawbacks. They just don’t feel like vampires. What they feel like are superheroes with skin conditions and a unique appetite. Which is fine, but don’t call it a traditional “vampire” flick.
I completely understand the enormous appeal of the Twilight series because it’s totally pre-teen wish fulfillment. I’m positive that the majority of the pre-teen readership projects themselves as Bella, the typical Every Girl. She encounters a sexy boy who ignores all the flashy and trashy girls and recognizes that special something in the Every Girl. In fact, he respects her and doesn’t want to be physical with her because he’s afraid of giving in to his urges (a rather obvious abstinence metaphor). He wants to love her forever and protect her. He has a dangerous bad boy angle but yet he’s still safe. In short, Edward Cullen is the idealized male for a nation of pre-teen girls who are just stepping into the world of boys (Bella also becomes an object of affection for no less than three boys at school). The Twilight tale even pulls a gender flip: the girl is pressuring the boy to give in to his carnal urges. And yet I can also understand why the books appeal to an older, mostly female, readership as well. If you remove the vampire angle from the story, it’s that old classic literary tale about a gal falling in love with the rebel, the boy who’s misunderstood. Hollywood has been making those sorts of love stories for decades, and so Meyer is able to tap into this classical romantic appeal.
Twilight never delves too deeply into the dramatic dynamics of a 17-year-old girl dating a 90-year-old vampire. There are a lot of dramatic consequences drawn from dating somebody who cannot age. The Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show explored the ins and outs of human-vampire relationships with wit and sincerity. Edward is forever seventeen but does that mean he still digs the high school girls? If you’re trapped in the body of a teenager does that mean you are still attracted to teenagers? If I were almost a century old I think I might seek out the comfort and conversation of a more mature woman, which is precisely the notion I’m sure the older female readership also fantasizes about (for all those guilty soccer moms, it doesn’t qualify as fantasizing an underage when he’s undead). Talking to teenagers for the rest of your life seems like a strange form of penance, as does repeatedly completing high school. Are the vampires just bored and attend school to pass the time? Don’t they know that TV was invented?
Twilight doesn’t have much of a plot to fill out a two-hour running time; the bulk of the movie consists of two characters feeling each other out. When the film does introduce an exterior threat (Cam Gigadet as a vamp obsessed with the hunt) it never feels that dangerous or fitting. The outside threat is saved for the very end and is easily dispatched, so the movie would have been better off without forcing a last-minute life-or-death dilemma into its love story. The love story itself doesn’t feel as properly nourished as it needed to be. The whole film experience feels like one long introduction and set-up, not so much an open-and-shut story.
Now, with all of that established, the Twilight film itself isn’t too bad. The movie is well made and certainly has a pulpy romantic vibe. The movie never feels overly burdened by excessive emotion or fake drama. It also follows a leisurely pace but never becomes dull. The actors are a big help. The leads don’t seem like they stepped out of a magazine photo spread; Stewart and Pattinson (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) have a palpable chemistry that simmers throughout. Stewart is a terrific actress that embodies a typical teen, and Pattinson has the heartthrob glower down cold. I think there is rarely a scene where Edward isn’t glowering. Director Catherine Hardwicke (Thriteen) might as well provide onscreen instruction telling the audience when to swoon. Hardwicke is a filmmaker that doesn’t wallow in pretension, so she knows what kind of flick she has at her disposal. On the other hand, she is able to tamp down the inherent cheesiness that can go with a gooey supernatural love story. Twilight is able to work because it strikes the right balance between romance and silliness.
Fans of Twilight should be delighted by the big screen adaptation of their favorite characters and heartthrobs. Sure the plot is a tad lightweight, the vampires might not be vampires as we traditionally understand them, the characters make giant leaps in their proclamations of love, and the outside conflict is a bit too poorly manufactured, but the movie has some bite. The movie isn’t moody, it isn’t too heavy, and it can come across as entertaining, though I’m at a loss to explain its extraordinary popularity. Now that Hardwicke and company have established the Twilight inhabitants, I hope the inevitable future installments will be better at providing resonating story and characters. If you doubt the certainty of sequels, need I remind you yet again that it is mandatory for girls age 7-14 to see this movie. The Twilight phenom has yet to reach its peak. Get used to it. It’s only a matter of time before Hollywood starts cranking out the Twilight knock-offs. Then, perhaps, I will join the armada of pre-teen girls and shriek wildly.
Nate’s Grade: B-