Last year, a group of fellow journalists and I visited the set of the upcoming Melissa McCarthy comedy Life of the Party. The movie, which reunites McCarthy with director/co-writer/husband Ben Falcone (Tammy, The Boss), follows a housewife who goes back to college and lands in the same sorority as her daughter. On the day we visited, we saw the scene where McCarthy’s character, Deanna, gets dumped by her husband, Dan (played by Matt Walsh), immediately after dropping their daughter off at college.
Usually, in our set visit coverage, we tell you a bunch of neat trivia about the movie, but with Life of the Party, the main thing we saw during our time there was this scene of Deanna getting dumped. I’ve been doing set visits for a while now, but this was the first time really getting to see how a comedy does alternate takes (or “alts”) up close. It’s not accurate to call it “ad-libbing” since the scene is fixed and the direction is set. No matter what happens, Deanna has to get dumped because it sets up the rest of the movie.
But what happens in that scene can be played with and molded, which is exactly what we saw on set. It’s not like they were ignoring a script as much as the script was clearly the jumping off point, and then it was up to McCarthy, Walsh, and Falcone to make the most of the scene.
The basics of the scene are: Deanna and Dan wave goodbye to their daughter, Deanna starts talking about how they might spend their marriage now that they have an empty nest, Dan suddenly says he wants a divorce and that he’s been having an affair with a realtor (played by Julie Bowen), and then proceeds to tell her that the sex he’s been having with the realtor is incredible. She then lashes back at him.
The beats of the scene are set. They always have to drop off their daughter, there always has to be the seeming normalcy of Deanna assuming everything is going to be fine, the suddenness of Dan’s confession, the comedy of him saying how the sex is incredible, and the retort coming from Deanna’s pain. These things always have to happen, but from there, we got to see how the actors and their director had a lot of room to play around within those beats.
From McCarthy’s side, it’s actually a testament to her incredible acting ability. We all know she can be hilarious, but she has the rough side of this scene. She has to go from happy and upbeat to absolutely devastated every single take, and she sold it. This isn’t a comedic version of emotional devastation with ugly crying and lamentations. She’s genuinely hurt and forced to reckon with the fact that her life as she knew it is over. She’s absolutely blindsided by Dan’s revelation, and McCarthy plays to the reality of the situation. When we talk about “great” acting, we usually talk about actors “disappearing” into their characters or scenes that are emotionally draining. But this is also great acting—doing an emotionally difficult scene, and having to tee it up again take after take after take without losing any of the impact.
Walsh, on the other hand, got to have a lot of fun with the scene because he’s playing the cad, but in that hapless way that Walsh excels at. Because he knows how to play meek and pathetic, he’s still able to get laughs out of the scene because he’s doing the exact wrong thing at this moment. Of course you don’t spring this information on your wife seconds after dropping your daughter off at college. But instead, he just digs himself deeper, and Walsh kept trotting out different ways of explaining how phenomenal the sex was. One line that he kept returning to (with Falcone’s suggestion) was that it was “mega-sex” and Walsh would find a way to run with just those two words, saying things like, “It was like regular sex, but mega. It’s mega-sex!”
Then McCarthy would retort and you could see two gifted comedians with improv backgrounds off to the races. I don’t want to spoil too much because I don’t know what Falcone will choose to put in the movie, but I really hope he includes the line where Deanna insults Dan’s penis and his response is, “My penis is a solid B-. Maybe a C+.” Not only is that a funny retort, but it also tells us more about Dan’s character. He’s not a confident man. He’s a silly, pathetic person, and probably his lack of confidence has contributed to the fact that he’s now cheating on his wife.
For Falcone, his job wasn’t just to capture the scene, but also to keep retooling with it on set. Most directors do this, adjusting performances so they can get exactly what they want, but Falcone also functioned as kind of a co-writer. He would collaborate with McCarthy in between takes, they would bounce lines off each other, and Falcone wouldn’t hesitate to shout out alternate lines for Walsh to say. For Walsh’s part, he would take the line and just run with it. This is what people mean when they say film is a “collaborative” medium, and that’s not even taking into account all of the technical people who are working to make everything come together.
I’m not sure how the finished version of Life of the Party will turn out, but it was still incredibly cool to see how McCarthy and Falcone work together (you can see why this is their third collaboration) and how talented actors can work within the confines of the story’s structure while still finding new approaches to a single scene.
Life of the Party opens May 11th.