Onscreen mothers brought the pain and some laughter this year
top: Deanna (Melissa McCarthy) and Leonor (Heidi Gardner) in “Life of the Party.”
bottom: Shaun Russell (Gabrielle Union) protecting daughter Jasmine (Ajiona Alexus) in “Breaking In.”
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
A few years ago, we got an actual movie from Garry Marshall called “Mother’s Day”—a sentimental celebration of the great women who birthed and raised us—that failed to live up to the challenge every mother ever laid down for their progeny. The movie was little more than a homemade card scribbled on a cocktail napkin, which Marshall pitched to Jennifer Aniston, Kate Hudson, and Julia Roberts. Honestly, I believe he might have even scribbled the dialogue on damp napkins, too.
Well, a couple of years later, Hollywood has attempted to make up for that grievous slight. Mother’s Day weekend in 2018 found not one, but two movies catering to mothers, as prime counterprogramming options opposite “Avengers: Infinity War,” the blockbuster intended to end all blockbusters (at least until the next Marvel movie
Melissa McCarthy and her partner-in-crime Ben Falcone have previously attempted to re-channel the comedic force she unleashed in “Bridesmaids” (where the married couple ended up playing a weirdly kinky duo). Following her Academy Award nominated turn, Falcone directed McCarthy in “Tammy” and “The Boss,” which the pair co-wrote together. Those two movies took the loveable oddball quality that makes McCarthy the perfect balm for the crustiest curmudgeon in your life and intentionally transformed her into that cranky character that no one wants to be around. The assumption behind that move had to be that her inevitable conversion into a comic heroine would prove that McCarthy’s abilities might not have any limitations, but the actuality landed somewhat short of those expectations.
In “Life of the Party,” the dynamic duo lowers the bar a bit. McCarthy’s character Deanna is the mother of Maddie (Molly Gordon), a college senior, and wife of Dan (Matt Walsh), a typically insensitive lout, just waiting to reveal just how much of a jerk he actually is, and it is obvious that he’s not interested in wasting his or our time. As the couple drives away from dropping Maddie off at college, Dan asks for a divorce so that he can be with Marcie (Julie Bowen), a real estate agent he’s been sleeping with.
This quick setup gives Deanna the chance to have a “Waiting to Exhale” moment where she burns Dan’s belongings, before she arrives at a great life epiphany. She decides to enroll in college alongside Maddie, in order to complete her degree, and have a fresh second chance at life. The humor, of course, lies in the awkward disruption her presence has on Maddie’s experience. What early twentysomething wants to go to frat parties with or share the morning after walk of shame with their mother?
“Life of the Party” doesn’t shy away from those moments, but it lets us in on the give-and-take that develops between this mother and daughter. Deanna loves her daughter without question and seeks to respect the boundaries between them, and Maddie appreciates the emotional blow her mother has experienced at the hands of her father (while also seeking to maintain some kind of relationship with him). No matter how outrageous the circumstances get, McCarthy always works best when her natural love and goodwill leads the way. She’s a comedic mama bear at heart.
Gabrielle Union, on the other hand, does not immediately strike audiences as a den mother. First and foremost, she’s a glamorous professional performer, an ensemble player in romantic projects (“Deliver Us from Eva”) or at the helm of “Being Mary Jane” (her own “Sex and the City” styled dramedy about a working woman’s pursuit of the good life). Union enjoyed a moment in “Bad Boys II” where she played the sister of Martin Lawrence’s detective and the love interest of his partner (played by Will Smith), but the real twist was that Union’s character was an undercover law enforcement agent herself. She got the chance to hang with the boys for a bit, although she ended up needing to be rescued.
Well, that’s definitely not the case in “Breaking In,” her 2018 Mother’s Day release. As Shaun Russell, Union’s a mother of two (Ajiona Alexus and Seth Carr), concerned with handling her estranged father’s estate after his untimely demise. She arrives at a private and highly secure bunker and discovers a crew of villains, led by Billy Burke, have decided to crash the party, in search of a fortune in liquidated assets. In a cruel twist, Shaun winds up on the outside of the main house, with her kids trapped inside, and she must use her wits and determination to get back in and thwart the evil aims of Burke’s team, who prove willing to do whatever it takes to get what they want.
Payback, as the tagline states, is a mother, but I had a hard time convincing myself that Union had a meaningful connection with her maternal instincts. There was something far more basic about her approach in this James McTeigue (“V for Vendetta”) thriller. Union proves that she’s a fighter and a survivor above all else, and that she can look damned good while doing it. She can save the motherly stuff for another time.
‘Life of the Party’ [PG-13] B
‘Breaking In’ [PG-13] C