Melissa McCarthy is a talented comic actress, and yet the movies she writes with director and husband Ben Falcone just seem to fall flat. The Boss was fine but forgettable, and her latest collaboration with Falcone, Life of the Party, leaves even less of an impression. The movie leaves McCarthy stranded playing a stereotypical mom who just gets into hijinks in a college setting. Despite a nice message of women bonding together and supporting each other’s dreams, the film is burdened by jokes that don’t land and then beating them to death as if the movie is trying to meet an arbitrary runtime. We know McCarthy can do better than this, which makes Life of the Party so frustrating.
Deanna (McCarthy) and Dan (Matt Walsh) have just dropped their daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon) off at college for her senior year when Dan abruptly informs Deanna that he’s been having an affair with realtor Marcy Strong (Julie Bowen) and wants a divorce. Deanna, having put her life on hold to be a wife and mother, is shocked and hurt, but then resolves to finish getting her degree in archeology and goes to join her daughter in college. Thanks to her daughter and her sorority sisters, Deanna is able to break out of her comfort zone and start living it up for the first time in her life.
Unfortunately, the premise never really takes off because Deanna never seems like a real person. There was more nuance and detail to McCarthy’s Sean Spicer impression on SNL than there is to Deanna, who is always set to sweet, generic mom. There doesn’t seem to be much of an internal life to the character. The fact that she’s interested in archelogy seems almost plucked out of a hat rather than a genuine passion for the subject. Beyond that, she’s just kind of shy and reserved, and then that’s supposed to be funny when she busts out with a cutting comment or does something outlandish.
It doesn’t help that the supporting cast tends to steal the spotlight whenever they share the screen. Maya Rudolph, who plays Deanna’s best friend Christine, steals the show whenever she’s around, playing brassy, loud, and bold. There’s a great dynamic between the two characters, and Rudolph just runs with it, knowing how to pitch her character in relation to Deanna’s. Gillian Jacobs also shines as Helen, a sophomore in the sorority who came to school later because she was in a coma for eight years. You almost wonder why the story isn’t about Helen, especially given how weird and exciting she is as a character, but the film decides to largely bench her even though Jacobs is great with just reaction shots.
Life of the Party is a movie that’s, at best, sporadically funny. At one point, Deanna gives an oral presentation for the ages, and it shows the full use of McCarthy’s gifts. But then the film will pull back and put her into largely predictable situations where you know how it’s going to go because all the characters are so one-dimensional. Even with an underlying message about women coming together to help other women, the good intentions can’t save Life of the Party from feeling DOA.