Movie Review ~ The Opening Act

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Will O’Brien is given the opportunity to emcee a comedy show for his hero and has to decide if he wants to continue the life he has set up or to pursue his dream as a stand-up comedian.

Stars: Jimmy O. Yang, Alex Moffat, Cedric the Entertainer, Neal Brennan, Bill Burr, Whitney Cummings, Jermaine Fowler, Ken Jeong, Russell Peters, Debby Ryan

Director: Steve Byrne

Rated: NR

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: There have been good movies starring stand-up comedians.  There have been good movies filmed of stand-up specials.  Has there ever been a good movie about stand-up comedians, though?  The few I can think of off the top of my head, 1988’s Punchline and 2009 Funny People didn’t exactly set my world on fire and that I couldn’t come up with any others surely wasn’t a great sign.  I was thinking about that before I started to watch The Opening Act because looking over the cast list and seeing a lot of familiar names I thought I had some reason to be a little concerned.  Here was a movie written/directed by first-timer who was also a stand-up comedian starring a stand-up comedian and featuring a supporting cast that was nearly all from their same colleague pool.  It was a crapshoot which way it would go, either Steve Byrne was going to kill his first time out or he’d bomb.  Remarkably, The Opening Act is a winner and while it shows the tell-tale signs of a novice director, it also does more than hint at a great potential for Byrne on the horizon.  I expected a film that was crass and far more juvenile but was pleased to find a touching story with a sweet soul that wasn’t afraid to hide it.

As far back as he can remember, Will O’Brien (Jimmy O. Yang, Patriots Day) has had comedy in his life.  It was something his parents shared with him growing up and it became a source of comfort between him and his dad after his mother died when he was still a child.  The laughs they shared carried over to adulthood and with his father now gone, he keeps those memories close and uses them to fuel his drive forward.  Stuck in a job he hates working for an annoying boss (Bill Burr, Daddy’s Home) while dreaming of becoming a headlining stand-up comedian, he is having trouble even getting onstage at his local comedy club because he can’t get enough people to come see him.  The thing is, Will is kinda good and when he is onstage tends to do well…something no one seems to really acknowledge since everyone is trying to get to that next level.

When his friend at the club, Quinn (Ken Jeong, Crazy Rich Asians) books a gig and can’t show up to host an out of town comedy event, he suggests Will for the job and it’s his first big opportunity to be seen by a reputable promoter.  If he does well, this could lead to more jobs — all he has to do is make it through the weekend without getting into trouble and be funny.  Oh, and the performer he’s introducing is his all-time favorite comedian, Billy G (Cedric the Entertainer), so it’s a chance to meet his comic hero and he’ll be rooming with a hard-partying comic (Alex Moffat, Ralph Breaks the Internet) who is determined to show Will a good time while he’s in town.  What could go wrong?

Byrne devises three days of chaos for Will, some of it predictable and some of it not.  It’s all delivered with an easy-going performance from Yang who never oversells some of the more bizarre circumstances he finds himself in nor does he underplay the dramatic moments afforded to his character throughout.  These are important days for Will and Byrne knows it so there’s some respect given when it’s appropriate.  That’s not to say the movie isn’t above some low-brow humor or off-color jokes, but these aren’t defense mechanisms it returns to when it gets stuck in a rut…Byrne seems to be more creative than going for gross out comedy and instead finds something important to say by putting Will in uncomfortable situations where he has to pick himself up and face consequences.

Most of the comedians are good as well, to varying degrees.  Moffat is a riot as the ribald comic that could have been a terror but winds up being kind of a sweet Artful Dodger to Yang’s Oliver.  I kept waiting for him to do something nasty that would change his trajectory but he’s exactly who he presents himself to be and that’s refreshing.  I have said it before and will say it again, I am totally completely 100% over Jeong.  Talk about someone who has milked his schtick to death.  He’s the worst part of the movie by far and is agonizingly awful every second he’s on screen.  As Yang’s love interest, Debby Ryan (Life of the Party) doesn’t have much to do but it’s more of a screenwriting problem than anything.  She’s so non essential to the story it feels like it was a character Byrne was compelled to create or include just to establish something about Yang or to use as a plot device for one of Will’s comedic escapades in the film’s midsection.

A worthwhile effort that has heart to go along with the laughs, The Opening Act could also apply to Steve Byrne’s career as a writer/director.  There are some fixes to be made and technique to be learned, especially in the establishing first twenty minutes that feel a bit awkward.  However once the film hits its stride it keeps up a healthy dose of energy and good will towards, uh, Will until the very end.  If his sophomore feature narrative film is as winning, sunny, and confident as this, he’s one to keep your eyes on.  Ditto for Yang who makes an assured jump from stand-up comedian and sorta actor to unconventional leading guy with ease.  This will surprise you.

Movie Review ~ Life of the Party

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: After her husband abruptly asks for a divorce, a middle-aged mother returns to college in order to complete her degree.

Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Gillian Jacobs, Maya Rudolph, Julie Bowen, Matt Walsh, Molly Gordon, Stephen Root, Jacki Weaver, Adria Arjona, Debby Ryan, Luke Benward, Jessie Ennis, Heidi Gardner

Director: Ben Falcone

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 105 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: I’ve got good news and bad news for you if you’re considering making a trip to the movies to see Life of the Party this Mother’s Day weekend. The bad news is that most of the jokes have been spoiled for you in the previews, the good news is that the two best jokes haven’t. A semi-refreshing twist on the old fish-out-of-water/parent-going-back-to-school storyline, this isn’t a movie out to reinvent the comedic wheel but it does manage to capably overcome initial tone problems. What results is a sweet, if completely predictable, comedy that has its heart and brain in the right place.

The third collaboration between star Melissa McCarthy and husband Ben Falcone (What to Expect When You’re Expecting), Life of the Party represents the best of their work together so far. Their first outing was 2014’s Tammy, a movie so godawful I don’t permit its name to be uttered in my presence. They bounced back in 2016 with The Boss, which found more humor, less aggravation, and an overall better script. Writing together allows the couple to play off McCarthy’s strengths but continues to show Falcone’s weakness as a director – I’d love to see what another director would do with one of their screenplays.

Frumpy housewife Deanna (McCarthy, Spy) and her husband Dan (Matt Walsh, Into the Storm) have just dropped their daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon, Love the Coopers) off for her last year of college when Dan announces he wants a divorce. He’s fallen in love with a realtor (Julie Bowen) and is selling their house, leaving Deanna without a home or an income. In a surge of confidence, Deanna decides to reenroll at the same college she dropped out of in her senior year 20 years earlier…the college her daughter now attends.

Going back to school to finish her archeology degree, Deanna finds that while the times have changed the people getting the college experience haven’t. There’s still the mean girl (Debby Ryan) who tears down anything she doesn’t deem cool, the parties are drunken ragers, the sorority sisters have the same doubt about their futures, and Deanna’s fear of public speaking hasn’t dissipated over the last two decades. That proves especially hard during the film’s funniest sequence by far, when Deanna has to give an oral presentation that quickly devolves into a sweaty, knee-buckling, nightmare.

Still, a few things in her homecoming to co-ed life catch her off-guard. Unexpected bonding with her daughter tops the list as well as a realization she can reclaim some of the years she feels were spent in a troubled marriage by returning to finish what she started. Then there’s the romance with Jack (Luke Benward), a younger frat boy which takes some surprisingly genuine turns as the movie progresses. Eventually, even with one nice twist involving Jack, the movie works toward its predictable conclusion yet even though you know where it’s all heading it’s not hard in the least to sit back and be entertained.

That’s not to say the movie doesn’t have moments that call for a markdown on the final grade. As is usually the case with these McCarthy/Falcone features, there’s an overabundance of periphery characters that serve no purpose to any of the characters or the story. Usually friends (or family!) of the director and star, these annoying additions pad the running time and bring down some of the solid funny framework that has been created. Even the usually dependable Maya Rudolph (The Way Way Back) is given far too long a leash as Deanna’s friend – I almost wonder what things would have looked like had Rudolph and the tightly wound and miscast Bowen had swapped roles. There’s also at least one too many sorority sisters for my money. And Deanna’s parents (Jacki Weaver, Stoker, and Stephen Root, Trumbo) could have been removed all together and no one would have been the wiser.

You also have to ding the couple for not editing their films better or providing information to fill in large gaps that go unexplained. It’s never clear until far too late how Deanna is paying for college or what hoops she had to jump through to get back to her studies in less than several weeks. Timelines are also fuzzy, with events either happening too close together or too spaced out and, as with most college movies, everyone seems to only go to one class or not attend at all.

Yet the film is getting high marks from me because even with all these nitpicks, there’s a certain whiff of clean air and good intentions that keep this one afloat. McCarthy again carries an entire film on her shoulders and while that might get exhausting after a while she’s got the boundless energy to pull out all the stops when called upon to do so. While she’s never one to shy away from physical stunts, this is another pleasant example of McCarthy’s continued maturing as a performer with her comedy coming from situational happenstance instead of corporeal humor. Whether she’s dancing in ‘80s-inspired couture, trashing a wedding reception, or performing alongside a pop star’s amusing cameo, there’s always a human being underneath it all.