“Life of the Party” Movie Review


     A common problem with many of the comedy films hitting multiplexes these days is the perception that audiences expect to laugh scene to scene, regardless of whether or not the material comes across as forced.  “Life of the Party” suffers from this issue and more, in what is yet another gem of a performance by Melissa McCarthy that seemingly goes to waste as she is buried deep within the confines of an overly cliched college comedy of which we have seen so many times before.  McCarthy again teams with her husband, Ben Falcone, who takes on both directing and co-writing duties here, but the result is consistently mixed, as the proceedings often resemble a series of sketch comedy scenes strung together amongst a tired and overly used premise.  To watch “Life of the Party” isn't so much about what might have been, but rather  continuing to wonder when McCarthy will appear within a story worthy of her comedic talents?  Seeing a film like this makes you yearn for those long ago “Bridesmaids” days where she stole every scene she was in.

     In the opening sequence, which is devoid of any character development or introduction for that matter, Deanna (Melissa McCarthy) and Dan (Matt Walsh) are dropping off their daughter, Maddie (Molly Gordon), at her college dorm for her senior year.  After the obligatory goodbyes and just minutes after driving away, Dan informs Deanna he wants a divorce and has apparently fallen in love with another woman.  Deanna’s reaction is mostly what you’d expect in a film like this, with McCarthy’s trademark physical comedy replacing the need for showing any real emotion resulting from the situation she now finds herself in.  As she proceeds to take Dan’s belongings and burn them in the backyard of their home, she begins to ponder her life moving forward.

     After attending a mediation session to work through the divorce that involves sitting across from Dan and his soon to be new wife, Marcie (Julie Brown),  Deanna decides to go back to school in order to finish the last year of her Archaeology degree, which we now know means she will be joining her daughter on campus as they make their way through their senior years.  And this is the set up that simply utilizes every known college movie plot thread in order to get us to the obviously predictable and sentimental ending.  Almost immediately we are subjected to alcohol soaked frat parties, college sex romps, young female self worth therapy sessions, rivalries between the popular and unpopular, Greek style sorority hazing, getting high, and practically every other college related high jinks we’ve seen in everything from “Animal House” to “Old School”.  The only twist McCarthy and Falcone come up with is the fact Deanna is middle aged and happens to be hanging out with her daughter through all of this. A fish out of water scenario, I suppose.

     Given the comedic pedigree of the actors in the film, there are certainly a number of laughs, mostly at the expense of McCarthy.  Saturday Night Live vets Maya Rudolph and Chris Parnell both have fun in their respective roles, though Rudolph might be a bit over the top at times as Deanna’s best friend Christine.  Matt Walsh (“Veep”) isn't given much to do as Dan, as his scenes are normally just reactions to the craziness of McCarthy’s antics, but his presence in the role fits nicely with what the story needs from the character, that being the kind of self absorbed loser who would tell his wife of over twenty years that he is “trading up”.  In one of the film’s best scenes, Dan arrives with Marcie at the same restaurant as Deanna and several friends, only to find out something surprising about the company she is currently with. The scene is more or less a rift on the big reveal scene in “Crazy, Stupid, Love”, but works here as a sort of spring board for the second half of the film.  The various college kids surrounding Deanna in the dorms, classrooms, and at parties play mostly in the background, as we always know who is intended to remain the center of attention at all times. 

     Central to the story is the relationship between mother and daughter, which works best when their scenes take place within the college environment, and particularly when Maddie almost immediately feels it necessary to give her mom a crash course on modern college appearance and etiquette.  Given the fact these events happen within the span of a college school year, Maddie becomes surprisingly well adjusted to her parents having suddenly divorced, especially given the fact her father is set to marry another woman within this short amount of time.  Aside from the initial scene where Deanna tells Maddie her parents are getting divorced (I suppose Dan didn’t feel it was necessary to let her know as well?), she shows no outward emotion to the situation and appears content and supportive at her father’s and Marcie’s wedding late in the film, which brings me to the very first point I made.  Why do comedies have to be funny from start to finish?  Can’t we tell stories that depict life as it really is without feeling the need to add a punchline every few minutes?  If Maddie was devastated in any way, she certainly never shows it on screen, which in turn takes all of the pain out of the divorce and allows the situation to play like a joke when it obviously would not be.  Maybe allowing real emotional build up in these scenes would benefit the funny stuff and perhaps create moments each person in an audience can relate to, thus earning the laughs that “Life of the Party” wants to get out of us in every scene.  When you present characters in a film who ham it up, even in life’s most difficult moments, you take away what makes them human, leaving what amounts to stand up comedy disguised as a feature film. GRADE: C-