Life of the Party Review
Life of the Party is the rare film to depict debauchery ranging from underage drinking and drug taking to public sexual encounters, and still come across as feeling wholesome and entirely inoffensive. The latest collaboration between Mellissa McCarthy and director/co-writer/real life husband Ben Falcone shows that when working together, the pair’s natural instincts are to make lightly comic character studies following the kindly inhabitants of Middle America – and as a result, the film feels pitched entirely to audiences in the “flyover states”, despite what sounds like less than conservative subject matter on paper.
The film’s kindly, well-meaning nature means that it’s largely devoid of laughs, or any sentiment that digs deeper into your emotional psyche than the average greetings card. But it’s certainly an improvement over the pair’s prior collaborations (2014’s Tammy and 2016’s The Boss), even if you are left with the nagging sense the pair would rather have created a simple “slice of life” comedy-drama, due to the half-hearted nature of this film’s broader comic elements. It feels like a gentle character study that has been repeatedly tweaked by outside forces in an attempt to make a widely crowd pleasing comedy, losing a personality in the process, if not entirely losing all the charm.
McCarthy stars as Deanne Miles who, upon dropping her daughter (Molly Gordon) off at college for the start of senior year, is instantly dumped by her husband of 20 years (Matt Walsh) who has already found a new partner. Two decades ago, she abandoned her own senior year to start a family - and now, she’s decided that with her newfound freedom, she’ll go back and finish her archaeology degree. Instantly, she slots herself in with her daughter’s friends, and after initial embarrassment, finds herself more than welcome. But as she starts a relationship with a younger man (Luke Benward) and assumes a hard partying lifestyle, she begins to wonder whether she’s here for her education, or whether she’s in the midst of a midlife crisis.
McCarthy and Falcone’s screenplay seems oddly designed to work against McCarthy’s own talents as a comedic performer. If this film were played straighter, her more restrained performance would help showcase her undervalued abilities as a dramatic actress – but the film is pitched as a broad comedy, that somehow gives McCarthy few opportunities to showcase her innate physical comic talent that could help elevate the material at hand. Even in the few rage-fuelled moments (reminiscent of her characters in her various collaborations with director Paul Feig), she maintains a mild mannered air that stops the laughs from flowing, and deprives the film of any form of bite. When she is actually given a chance to play to her physical comedy strengths, as shown in a class presentation scene where she becomes overwhelmed by stage fright, the workmanlike direction stops it from becoming the crowd pleasing slapstick moment it was obviously designed to be.
The storytelling is also at fault; for a film with an easily digestible high-concept premise, divorced mother joins her daughter in college, the narrative feels overly laborious and lacking any sense of credulity in how it executes this set up. Once it is established, the screenplay introduces mid-film plot twists designed to connect characters from separate narrative strands (twists that, in hindsight, would be obvious if there were any prior indicators the narrative were to move in this direction), and by the time we reach the third act, introduces the most forced subplot of 2018. Said subplot seems to exist only to set the stage for a pointless cameo from Christina Aguilera, which offers nothing substantial to the story being told.
This isn’t to say the film is as entirely devoid of worth as other critics will tell you. Life of the Party is singlehandedly rescued from comic oblivion by Maya Rudolph’s recurring role as McCarthy’s best friend. Every scene she stars in proves to be a highlight, as she generates the manic comic energy that goes underrepresented due to the rest of the ensemble remaining comfortably on autopilot. Outside of her appearances, the film’s register remains schmaltzy and overly saccharine, even in the tried and tested moments of debauched partying. Eventually, I became slightly won over by the unashamed cheesiness of the self-empowerment message, even if it didn’t make up for the lazy storytelling and largely absent sense of humour.