A film review by Craig J. Koban August 27, 2018

LIFE OF THE PARTY  jj

2018, PG-13, 105 mins.

 

Melissa McCarthy as Deanna Miles  /  Gillian Jacobs as Helen  /  Maya Rudolph as Christine  /  Jacki Weaver as Sandy  /  Christina Aguilera as Herself  /  Debby Ryan as Jennifer  /  Molly Gordon as Maddie

Directed by Ben Falcone  /  Written by Melissa McCarthy and Falcone

 

 

I'm literally going to start my review of the new Melissa McCarthy led college comedy LIFE OF THE PARTY in the exact same manner as I did when I opened my review of her last comedy THE BOSS.

I donít hate Melissa McCarthy.  I really donít, contrary to what many of you may think.  Sheís talented.  That much is clear. 

So, once again, I don't have it out for her.  I think she has an easily likeable on-screen presence and she's chiefly demonstrated that she can be quite good when her comedic - and even dramatic -  talents are fully utilized, such as was the case in SPY and ST. VINCENT.  

The problem, though, with so many of her other starring vehicles is that they're so grotesquely and shamefully unfunny and shows her playing the exact same variation of the disagreeably dimwitted slob with a heart of gold that's growing stale with each new film (entries like the borderline unwatchable TAMMY, IDENTITY THIEF, and the aforementioned THE BOSS come immediately to mind).  She should probably look towards working with other writers, producers, and directors, but since her worst repeat offending films are directed by her husband in Ben Falcone and are co-written and produced by her, that tough-love advice may be hard to follow through on.  Regrettably, LIFE OF THE PARTY continues this creative marriage - no pun intended - of Falcone and McCarthy calling the shots in front of and behind the camera, and even though it contains a few redeeming qualities, it nevertheless represents another self-indulgent vanity project for the couple that, rather incredulously, once again fails to make proper usage of its star's abundant talents.  I was bored with LIFE OF THE PARTY within ten minutes, and the fact that it aimlessly lumbered on for another 90 only further fuelled my desire to seek sleep.

 

 

That, and the film is ostensibly on pure autopilot as it regurgitates storylines, themes, and pratfalls from so many other countless college comedies that have come and gone over the last several decades.  The overt familiarity on display in LIFE OF THE PARTY shows creative laziness, especially seeing as we've seen other films about fish out of water middle aged people that return to college and experience all of the social awkwardness entailed therein.  Now, this film does, at the very least, offer up - much like the somewhat similar and infinitely funnier BLOCKERS from earlier this year - a refreshing gender reversal on an age-old genre that's usually dominated by men.  Plus, there's an inherent sweetness to this material of a older woman actually being embraced and supported by her vastly younger sorority sisters in order to make her transition to collegiate life easier.  Considering the rampant mean spirited raunchiness that permeates this genre, the good natured vibe of LIFE OF THE PARTY is kind of welcoming.  It's just a shame that the entire enterprise built upon such a solid premise foundation is so ultimately banal and wastefully executed.

The TV sitcom worthy set-up here is pretty hackneyed: McCarthy plays Deanna, a well meaning and awfully nice woman in her forties that is royally dumped by her husband Dan (Matt Walsh) just a few short minutes after they drop off their daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon) for her first day of college (this scene is arguably the funniest in the film, with Walsh's amusingly blunt and deadpan demeanor in wanting to divorce his wife and securing an "upgrade" scoring some hearty chuckles).  Without a home and sense of purpose in her life, Deana decides to control her own fate and make a proud return to Decatur University and finish off her archaeology degree that she was forced to put on hold after she gave birth to Maddie.  Predictably, Maddie is none too impressed with the notion of having to attend her senior year of college with her nosy and love starved mother clinging to her at every waking moment. 

However, Maddie's sorority sisters start to take an instant liking to Deana, and all of them decide to work together to ensure that this out of place and out of touch woman becomes the new "it" girl of the campus and party scene (cue obligatory makeover scene where the ugly duckling in Deana is made attractive and available).  Within no time, Deana finds herself becoming - cough, cough - the life of the party and manages to develop a bit of a cult following, and even starts a sexual fling with a much younger student with the hunky Jack (Luke Benward), who considers Deana his "sexual Dubbledore."  Unfortunately, Deana is finding it hard to emotionally move on from her cheating and backstabbing husband, not to mention her fear of public speaking is making it awfully hard for her to successfully complete one part of her archaeology class' academic requirement of a - yuppers! - oral presentation. 

For the most part, I welcomed LIFE OF A PARTY'S noble minded message of girl power and finding the right sister soulmates - regardless of age difference - that can help instill confidence and self esteem in people through numbers.  I liked how the young women in the film serve as Deana's moral anchor and steadfastly support her instead of being vengefully cruel.  The film is littered with a good supporting cast and some decent side performances, especially from Gillian Jacobs, who inexplicably shows up to play a college student that has re-entered post-secondary life after...being in a coma for eight years.  I also liked Saturday Night Live's Heidi Gardner playing Deana's uber goth and ultra moody dormmate that seems to disturbingly stare and fixate on people more than any other healthy young woman would.  Again, in an age of male dominated college films, it's nice to see LIFE OF A PARTY embrace its female characters.

But, this female-led film also demonstrates that it can fail just as miserably as any male ensemble fuelled comedy.  One of its most glaring issues is with its semi-bloated running time of 105 minutes, with really, really begins to show as the plot meanders around without a discernable game plan and awkwardly segues from one loosely interconnected scene to the next.  There's an aimlessness to LIFE OF THE PARTY that hurts its overall momentum and flow, which is an absolute requirement for comedies.  Too many scenes also show McCarthy given free reign to do her schtick to camera mugging levels, which often fall alarmingly flat.  Much like her other comedies, McCarthy seems infinitely better as a performer than the underlining material she's afforded here.  Having said that, because she wrote her own material and her husband directed her in it both of them should probably look into the mirror and give themselves a massive finger wag of shame. 

I also felt very little, if any, tension in the story.  There's rarely a moment when you doubt that the near indomitable spirit and infectiously charming disposition of Deana will not get her out of any perceived jam.  There's never an opportunity made to really flesh out this conflicted and vulnerable woman, mostly because she's developed as a beacon of unending gumption and forward drive that's capable of anything.  There are a few subplots that could have generated some much needed conflict - like one involving Deana being harassed by some uppity glamour queen college students - but the wimpy PG-13 rating here never seems to have the nerve to push it into edgier territory.   I'm also not sure how I felt about the whole relationship that Deana has with Jack.  It's played up for broad and easy laughs, but there's an undeniable ickiness factor associated with it as well.  I'd be curious what the response would be from audiences if the genders and ages were reversed and a fortysomething male star was shown having library intercourse with a barely out of her teens female co-star.  It's all a bit off-putting no matter how you slice it.

LIFE OF THE PARTY is not as gag-inducingly wretched as the last several McCarthy quarterbacked comedies, seeing as it's a gentler type of college film and does a few things to circumvent the genre is genuinely interesting ways.  Unfortunately, the overall film is far too scattershot in its scripting and is, at the end of the day, struggles to generate ample amusement throughout.  For every gag that scores a modest chuckle there's a dozen more than inspired me to roll my eyes and check my watch.  Maybe the big problem with McCarthy continually re-teaming with her director hubbie is that they are both collectively too afraid to stray away with each new film away from the "Melissa McCarthy film" comfort zones and formulas.  Instead of audaciously traversing down new fangled territory, McCarthy and Falcone are just regurgitating and pathetically serving up what they think their audiences want.  LIFE OF THE PARTY proves that this union of director and star needs one member to file for career divorce. 

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