Life of the Party Review

Over the last decade, Melissa McCarthy has helped boost a handful of comedies with her fierce comic charm and timing. Spy, The Heat, Bridesmaids, and the Ghostbusters remake (which wasn’t perfect, but was still pretty damn funny) all were elevated by her ability to play someone who’s wild and outlandish while managing to feel slightly rooted in reality. Her immense talent in these films makes it all the more puzzling that the three films she’s co-written and produced, including the new comedy Life of the Party, are so scattershot. Life of the Party has a familiar, straightforward premise, but is hampered by dull jokes and a poor sense of pacing.

Here, McCarthy plays Deanna, a loving mother bidding her daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon) good luck in her senior year of college. Before Deanna can even leave the college campus, her husband (Matt Walsh) informs her that he wants a divorce. In the throes of this shock, Deanna decides to finish out her own college experience, having dropped out when she was younger, after which various wackiness ensues. What transpires feels somewhat like an inverse of last month’s much funnier raunchfest Blockers; in this film, it’s Maddie who’s more horrified at the presence of Deanna at college parties, hooking up with a guy half her age, and getting generally wasted, not the other way around.

Though there’s plenty of opportunities for humor in Life of the Party, it often feels like the script (by McCarthy and her husband, Ben Falcone, who also directed) skims the surface, and just barely. In some ways, the story indulges in as many college-bound tropes as possible instead of just focusing on a couple. There’s the friction between Deanna and her new Goth roommate, there’s a face-off between Deanna and a mean-girl sorority sister, there’s the fear of a college public-speaking presentation, and on and on. Every time the film feels like it’s about to hit a groove, Falcone shifts focus away. For as many times as Life of the Party is able to get a laugh or two, it works just as hard to justify its subplots.

Many of the laughs are scattered throughout, largely thanks to the cast’s way around non sequiturs. McCarthy is more of a straight-man figure as Deanna, whose bubbly personality wins over just about everyone. The two standouts are Gillian Jacobs, as a sorority sister whose own college days were on delay because of a lengthy coma, and Maya Rudolph, as Deanna’s best contemporary friend. Both Jacobs and Rudolph have a more cockeyed attitude, to the point where it’s almost as if they’re each in different, better, sharper movies. The film’s best scene, in which Deanna has an unexpected confrontation with her ex-husband and his new lover at a restaurant, is boosted by Rudolph’s boisterous presence. Life of the Party, like other McCarthy vehicles, has the requisite amount of physical comedy, whether she’s getting bonked by a soccer ball or being punched in the breast, but it’s the off-kilter jokes that land far better. (When Jacobs’ character compliments Deanna’s roommate on her grim dorm-room aesthetic, the roommate deadpans, “Why?”)

What truly hampers Life of the Party is that it’s almost totally unable to avoid feeling familiar. McCarthy may not have starred in a wacky college comedy before, but so many of the beats of this story feel overdone, to the point that one of the sorority sisters dives into a faux-inspirational speech near the end that’s barely removed from Bluto’s monologue in Animal House. (If that’s a deliberate reference, it’s too brief to land as anything more than a curiosity, as is the case with so many gags here.) Though this is a less abrasive film than the Rodney Dangerfield comedy Back to School, it’s not even able to be the first to claim the “adult goes back to college and hijinks ensue” plot. All the charm of McCarthy — who is indeed as effervescent as usual here, enough so that Deanna never feels obnoxious as much as genuinely charismatic — can’t save this from just replaying the same old clichés.

Melissa McCarthy can be an exceptionally funny performer, and has a deep enough range to sell the genuine heartbreak that Deanna feels in the opening act of Life of the Party. (Walsh’s ex-husband is played for laughs, deservedly so, but when Deanna is first greeted with a divorce, the gut-punch is sincere and full of pathos.) But once Deanna becomes one of the big kids on campus, this movie slides into as many possible familiar avenues as it can, even indulging in a ridiculous, lazy celebrity cameo that’s more perplexing than anything else. It’s nice to see McCarthy leading another comedy, but Life of the Party continues the trend that she’s far better in ensemble pieces.

/Film Rating: 5/10

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About the Author

Josh Spiegel is a Phoenix-based critic & writer. He's one of the hosts of Mousterpiece Cinema, a podcast about Disney films. He's also written a book of criticism on Pixar, titled Yesterday is Forever: Nostalgia and Pixar Animation Studios.