Barra Grant’s glib comedy-drama “Life of the Party” captures something of what it means to be an American man who believes he’s a failure. Script looks at the damaging effects of youthful success followed by mediocre adulthood, as well as bonds with friends and parents who may not be helpful but mean well. Very much in the Alexander Payne-Jim Taylor school of humanist comedy, sharply cast pic should draw acquisitions interest as a modest, mainstream character-driven work.
Michael (Eion Bailey), a former high school track star now in his late 20s, is drifting into a cloud of booze. He has a wan marriage to Phoebe (Ellen Pompeo) and a bland corporate career, and seems unaware of how miserable he is.
His former track relay team buddies — all of whom still live in their New York ‘burb hometown of Manhasset — notice that he’s out of sorts, but aren’t sure what to do about it. The buddies include musician Kipp (Clifton Collins Jr.), straight-laced orthodontist Stuart (Gabriel Olds), and vintage car magazine writer Artie (John Ales).
Keenly written script by Grant (known in Hollywood circles as a coveted script doctor) begins by centering on Michael, and then spins out to involve the people closest to him — demonstrating that Michael isn’t the only one who needs help.
But help he gets — after crashing Artie’s prized ’65 Mustang into a tree — in the form of a group “intervention” arranged by psychiatrist Dr. Trent (Larry Miller). The resulting encounters veer between calculated comedy writing of high-end sitcom quality and scenes of rich emotion that artfully juggle humor and buried rage.
The most acidic comedy is saved for the scene-stealers, David Clennon and Pamela Reed as Michael’s demanding parents.
Pompeo’s wife is somewhat lost amid such vivid characters, but her quiet warmth indicates an anchor Michael badly needs. Bailey, whose sheer handsomeness may blind viewers to his potency as an actor, gives the movie a poignant depth although he’s never quite convincing during his moments of emotional breakdown.
Ales, Olds and Collins add a human quality to their characters on screen. More of Miller would have benefited pic.
Print unspooled at Palm Springs fest was a 35mm film widescreen copy transferred to video (which tended to lose much of lenser Lawrence Sher’s fine work), with a temporary track.