Nobody works harder in a comedy than Melissa McCarthy. And in Life of the Party, she might as well be grunting through an Ironman triathlon while carrying a bag of rocks. Appearing in every scene, the actress literally sweats through her clothes trying to make this movie succeed. McCarthy might have received a gold for her summer movie efforts if she hadn’t relied on the same stock character doing the same stock physical shtick. Participation medal?
Once again, we’re asked to laugh at McCarthy as she plays a lovable, shlubby misfit. Deanna is a Chatty Cathy proud mom of a college senior (Debby Ryan) and ready to travel to Italy for four weeks with her husband. The couple have just dropped off their daughter at school when Deanna’s onetime college sweetheart drops the emotional bomb. He’s in love with a real-estate agent (Julie Bowen) and wants a divorce. And he’s taking the house. The indignity doesn’t stop there! Deanna gets out of the car and takes an Uber to her parents to wallow in her sorrow.
If only she hadn’t dropped out of college when she got pregnant, she wails. She loved being a member of the student body at Decatur University. She was going to be an archaeologist, just like Indiana Jones. Before you can say “Triple Lindy” (Back to School? 1986? Young Robert Downey Jr.? Anyone?), Deanna is back on the same campus as her daughter to get that diploma. And she has the bedazzled school sweatshirt, rah-rah spirit and oodles of paraphernalia to prove it. Go Tigers!
To the film’s credit, Deanna’s pretty sorority-girl daughter never treats her like a social leper. She and her goofy friends take to her maternal warmth and root for her happiness. Her daughter is the one that takes her into a bathroom early on and gives her the requisite make-over. The underlying sweetness between a Gen X mom and her Gen Z daughter on Mother’s Day weekend is a refreshing change. McCarthy and her director husband Ben Falcone co-wrote the script; bravo to them for avoiding this predictable path.
The pleasantly surprising originality ends there. As you can surmise from the movie’s title, Deanna soon unleashes her repressed wild child. Write down a list of college clichés, and I guarantee she checks each box. Each rite of passage leads to a signature McCarthy-ism that dates back to her Oscar-nominated Bridesmaids role. She does her aggressive libido thing while getting it on with a fraternity dude (Luke Benward). She uses every muscle to dance to an ‘80s song at a party. She gets high and causes mass debauchery at her ex-husband’s wedding. The slapstick is meant to be uproarious, and the audience in my screening room did howl during some of the episodic set pieces.
Still, I think McCarthy excels when she lets her body and face relax. The dialogue may not feature up-to-the-second wittiness — the jokes feature references to Orson Wells and Fatal Attraction! — but it does have enough one-liners to elicit a few genuine giggles. Her scenes with an older coed (Gillian Jacobs) that spent eight years in a coma are especially winning. McCarthy and Falcone would have gotten as much humor mileage out of Deanna’s old-school attempts to adapt to college and counsel these sorority girls as they would have from her walk of shame.
Life of the Party does bring its share of heart to the proceedings. And for whatever it’s worth, this is a considerable improvement over the couple’s previous collaborations of Tammy and The Boss. (Shudder.) But McCarthy’s fans know she is better than an extended, familiar sitcom with minimal laughs. For her next project, fingers crossed that she goes above and beyond the old college try.
Life of the Party opens in theaters Friday, May 11
Also published on Medium.