Melissa McCarthy goes back to school in Life of the Party, her latest collaboration with her husband director/co-writer Ben Falcone. The biggest question to many is going to be how much of a rip-off of the classic Rodney Dangerfield movie Back to School is it? The good news, once one gets past the lugubrious, overlong intro is, thankfully, less than you were worried.
The bad news is it isn’t remotely as funny, either.
McCarthy plays Deanna, a wife and mother who’s gone middle aged before her time, and largely lives for her daughter, college senior Maddie (Molly Gordon). Maddie is attending the fictitious Decatur University, less than half an hour from her home somewhere in Georgia, where everything is shot these days. Deanna dropped out of Decatur in her senior year, thanks to her unplanned pregnancy with Maddie, while her husband-to-be Dan (Matt Walsh) finished his degree. Dan is acting like such a douche when he and Deanna take Maddie back to school for the start of her senior year that we’re hardly surprised when he drops the bombshell, once he and Deanna are back in the car, that he’s leaving her for another woman.
Deanna, of course, decides to return to school, and since her own alma mater is so close, she enrolls there. The movie has the brains not to drag out Maddie’s discomfort, angst and annoyance over her mother’s horning in on her senior year – that would just make her another harpy foil and the movie has at least two of those already – other woman/broker Marcie and snotty coed Jennifer (played with delicious venom and vitriol by Debby Ryan). Maddie’s sorority sisters basically think Deanna, now to be called D-Rock, is dope.
And that’s the single largest problem with this largely workmanlike comedy: its relentless predictability. George Bernard Shaw reportedly said that comedy resulted from the unexpected juxtaposition of incongruities, which makes sense when you think about it. But the operative word here is “unexpected” and virtually nothing that happens in this movie is unexpected. The script, by McCarthy and Falcone, is at best a, thin, paint-by-numbers effort that leaves, by design or necessity, ample room for the evils of improvisation. It speaks volumes that there are three party scenes in the movie.
Although Life of the Party does not deliver a lot of belly laughs, it must be noted in the interest of full disclosure that are a few laugh-out-loud scenes. When Deanna has to return to the adult world to deal with her pending divorce, the movies picks up some comic traction and some well-needed contrast to the hallowed halls of higher education. A mediation scene, in which Deanna brings gal pal Christine (Maya Rudolph) while her estranged husband brings his lover (Julie Bowen), who also happens to the realtor he’s listing the marital residence with. Oddly, Deanna’s on-again-off-again dalliance with a hunky undergraduate (Luke Benward) is not as squirmy as one might expect.
Make no mistake. This is no shock comedy. Life of the Party is relentlessly, unapologetically good-natured in an all-too PG-13 sort of way. Too often McCarthy has been the butt of the joke – certainly not the case here. In the Paul Feig movies Bridesmaids and Spy she has to fight preconceived judgments and rejection until she proves her worth.
This is a less challenging showcase for McCarthy’s substantial gifts, but it lets her show off. Deanna is goofy while intelligent, maternal and flirtatious, angry then empathetic, vulnerable yet resilient. McCarthy makes her character believable, even if the scenes showcasing her performance aren’t. The movie’s best moments come once the script ditches the stock jokes about Deanna’s cluelessness and lets McCarthy mix it up with a supporting cast too good for this material. SNL’s Heidi Gardner as Deanna’s scary, goth agoraphobic roommate and Gillian Jacobs as a slightly older student who spent eight years in a coma, are particularly luminous.
There is nothing particularly notable about Falcone’s direction, though this is a more assured effort than his previous outings with McCarthy, Tammy and The Boss. The movie is a handsome enough production, thanks largely to director of photography Julio Macat (Pitch Perfect, The Boss) who gets a pleasant, nostalgic college campus look. But moviemaking is more than just getting the shots in focus and making sure they can be cut together coherently, and Falcone hasn’t progressed much beyond that. A dialogue exchange late in the movie, probably meant to be definitive, is tossed off without emphasis and ultimately just adds to the stack of loose ends that he and co-writer McCarthy are both too willing to tolerate.
A likable enough underachiever that manages a few decent laughs, Life of the Party is ultimately a gentleman’s C effort that can wait for Red Box.