Life of the Party goes in some unexpected directions but doesn’t always end up where it maybe should. The film, the third collaboration between star Melissa McCarthy and her husband, Ben Falcone, tries a different approach with the college comedy, opting for something gentler instead of your typical rude and raunchy house party. The result is both fresh and surprising, but it’s also not very funny. McCarthy and Falcone, who serve as writers and producers with the latter taking on directing duties, seem to have their hearts in the right place, but that’s hardly enough in this case. The meandering plot doesn’t give the story or comedy much structure, and the movie fails to live up to its promise.
McCarthy plays Deanna Miles, bubbly wife to Dan (Matt Walsh) and mother to Maddie (Molly Gordon). She is living her best life until she drops her daughter off at college and Dan drops the news that he is filing for divorce, selling the house, and marrying realtor Marcie (Julie Bowen). Seizing the opportunity to make lemons out of lemonade, as one character puts it, Deanna joins Maddie to complete the remaining two semesters of her archaeology degree.
You can imagine how this could turn into a nightmare scenario, and it looks to shape up that way at first. Deanna intrudes on Maddie’s social life, giving herself an open invitation to her daughter’s sorority house. Meanwhile, her fondness for mom humor makes her the target of a couple of mean girls in her class. Another film would turn Deanna into the butt of all jokes and find a multitude of ways to tear her down. Maddie would be at odds with her embarrassing mother, a rift that would drive her into the arms of a useless coed.
To my shock, however, Life of the Party does none of these things. Instead it makes Deanna, or “Dee Rock,” well, the life of the party. Maddie’s sorority sisters, not exactly the cool kids but not misfits either, immediately embrace her as their surrogate mother. The group includes Helen (Gillian Jacobs), an older student who was in a coma for eight years, and Debbie (Jessie Ennis), who is always a step or two behind. Both are delightfully offbeat but have no qualms about showing off their new friend. They even take it as a point of pride when she goes out with them. Deanna, likewise, draws inspiration from the young women around her and gains confidence because of their support. It’s not often we see this type of generational divide used as a source of strength rather than division, common and natural as these relationships are in real life.
A novel concept does not make a movie though, and the film isn’t as self-assured its characters. There are a handful of minor conflicts, none of which are important enough to shape the narrative. Sometimes it seems like Deanna and gang are just hitchhiking along to their own story and stumbling from one spot to the next. The divorce and Dan’s general assholery are persistent background noise rather than major plot points while Deanna’s classroom nemeses are put in their place with a brief but wicked 80s dance battle. On the plus side, she has a college fling with Jack (Luke Benward), a fellow student and friend of Maddie’s boyfriend (Jimmy O. Yang in a surprising bit of anti-Hollywood casting). The relationship is sweet I suppose, but it’s not all that sincere, and I suspect it’s played more as a response to the typical narrative of the middle-aged dude romancing a fawning college girl. The role reversal provides some laughs, but like most other ideas in this movie, it isn’t that compelling.
Prod: Ben Falcone, Melissa McCarthy, Chris Henchy
Dir: Ben Falcone
Writer: Ben Falcone, Melissa McCarthy
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Gillian Jacobs, Maya Rudolph, Julie Bowen, Matt Walsh, Molly Gordon, Luke Benward, Stephen Root, Jacki Weaver, Jessie Ennis, Heidi Gardner, Jimmy O. Yang, Chris Parnell, Debby Ryan
Time: 105 min
Country: United States