The great Melissa McCarthy suffers from the Ben Falcone curse yet again in Life of the Party, a shitty Back to School rip-off—which makes it double-shitty, because Back to School sucked.
Falcone is McCarthy’s husband, and he has now directed her in three movies, all bad. Tammy was one of McCarthy’s worst films, while The Boss was better but still pretty terrible.
McCarthy plays Deanna, a frumpy middle-aged mom with a daughter, Maddie (Molly Gordon), going into her last year in college. Within minutes of dropping their daughter off at school, her husband (Matt Walsh) dumps her for a real estate agent played by an actress from Modern Family (Julie Bowen).
A dejected Deanna decides to enroll in school—a shockingly easy process in this film—and finds herself not only attending college alongside her daughter, but hanging out with her and her sorority sisters. She’s considered a square at first, but a quick makeover during a party has her emerge as the coolest new girl on campus.
Before long, she’s pulling all-nighters in frat houses with her new boyfriend (Luke Benward) in one of the film’s few likable aspects. (McCarthy and Benward are somewhat funny together.) She’s also break-dancing at ’80s themed parties, and desecrating the wedding cake at her ex-husband’s wedding. Basically, it’s a film full of comic setups that feel torturously familiar and ripped off. I’m surprised McCarthy didn’t bust out a vocal rendition of “Twist and Shout” à la Rodney Dangerfield at the ’80s party.
The movie is populated with characters played by stellar actresses who could’ve used some more screen time. Gillian Jacobs plays Helen, a genuinely funny character in concept: She’s an adult college student in school after spending eight years in a coma. Her story probably would’ve made for a more interesting movie, but the screenplay buries her deep in the background. The same goes for Heidi Gardner, one of the bright spots on this season of Saturday Night Live, as Leonor, Deanna’s goth roommate who never leaves their room and likes to hide in their closet. She’s funny, and rather than use her more, she’s saved for a dopey punch-line involving Christina Aguilera.
I’m always amazed when a film with McCarthy in it is awful, because she’s so damned good. Movies like Life of the Party make me mad at the movie, and not the star at its center. She does what she can with lousy material, and even manages to squeak out two or three genuine laughs. But her material here is her enemy.
The film starves for that moment when McCarthy transcends the material and lets loose in the way that only she can. It’s PG-13, so her penchant for profanity-laced dialogue art is mostly stifled, although she gets in a couple of good ones involving Google and her vagina.
Instead, we get scenes like Deanna getting nervous and sweaty during a midterm speech, and her trying to get laughs out of pit stains. There’s also an agonizing dance-off between her and one of the school’s mean girls, culminating in a stunt woman busting out those aforementioned break-dance moves. It’s beneath McCarthy’s talents in every way.
I’m thrilled that McCarthy and Falcone are happily married and working together—something tough to pull off in nasty Hollywood—but the fruits of their union are not magical in the cinematic sense. They should put the “making movies together” part of their relationship on ice. It’s just not working out.
Life of the Party is playing at theaters across the valley.