Melissa McCarthy is a modern comedy great, few can deny that. She’s also been able to create some pretty decent comedic gold with her significant other Ben Falcone. The two teamed up once again to create a new comedy offering in “Life of the Party” just in time for both Mother’s Day and college graduations and while this film does pack some fun humor and charming leads there’s just something missing from the overall product. It’s a film that brings laughs, but also lacks a bit of substance leaving the question is “Life of the Party” more entertaining than bad or is it a waste of talent in a genre desperately in need of a hit? Let’s dig a little deeper. This is my review of “Life of the Party”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“Life of the Party” stars Melissa McCarthy as Deanna Miles, a quirky mother who left college in her senior year in order to have her daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon). After Deanna drops Maddie off for her senior year at the same college she herself dropped out of, she is blindsided when her husband Dan (Matt Walsh) demands a divorce. With her marriage ended Deanna undergoes a midlife crisis and returns to the alma mater to finish her degree. While at first awkward, the experience allows mother and daughter to bond over their final college year as Deanna becomes popular among Maddie’s friends and a guide for several of them to embrace their unique qualities as growing women. With the help of Maddie and her sorority sisters Deanna recaptures her youth and becomes, well, the life of the party but the stress of the divorce, the requirements of her degree and a few poor decisions threaten to sideline her attempt to finally become a college graduate.
While “Life of the Party” is a very imperfect movie, it’s actually an effective comedy that at least tries to utilize the potential of its committed cast. Melissa McCarthy is always a good selling point for any film and even though this movie doesn’t utilize her charm, sense of humor or talent to the fullest she is a big part of making “Life of the Party” a laugh-out-loud riot. McCarthy is just so good at pulling off some of the most cliché and outrageous attempts at humor and every time she takes center stage she adds more to the scene than it probably deserved. While Her character in “Life of the Party” isn’t what I would consider memorable, Deanna is still a good example of what McCarthy can do even with subpar material as we see her embrace an out-of-touch mother with self-esteem issues and a charming personality in a way no one else could have done it. That in itself is a testament to McCarthy’s talent on the big screen.
Despite the issues “Life of the Party” presents I don’t think any of it can be attributed to anyone in the cast. McCarthy is supported by a capable crew composed of Molly Gordon, Maya Rudolph, Adria Arjona, Jessie Ennis, Julie Bowen, and standout Gillian Jacobs who also bring plenty of laughs on their own portraying sorority sisters and other characters relevant to Deanna’s story. Jacobs specifically is a breath of fresh air as an older sorority sister who attends college after eight years in a coma and quickly becomes one of Deanna’s closest friends outside of her daughter. In some ways ‘Life of the Party” feels like a showcase of Jacobs’ talent more than most, and if this is the kind of humor she brings to the table I’m all in because she’s hilarious. The rest of the cast is filled with capable female leads who are just as satisfyingly funny and charming and each have their moments to shine. It’s honestly a shame this film isn’t better than it is because each of the ladies involved, both young and old, have something to offer beyond the typical clichés of a college comedy. Each character and actress has their story and quirk and they get enough development to help them stand out as individuals which is a rarity with these kinds of films. Of all the things wrong with “Life of the Party”, the cast is a bright light in a dark cave even if the talent in wasted on mediocre writing and poor direction.
Even though the deeper elements of the narrative are lost in translation a bit, “Life of the Party” should also be commended for at least trying to handle some relevant modern themes without force-feeding them down the audience’s throats. This film also succeeds in subverting the traditional cliché of the child being embarrassed by their parent. In fact the relationship between Deanna and Maddie starts off as you would expect, but quickly becomes an on-campus friendship as Maddie’s friends embrace Deanna and show acceptance of her as a person. This is only the first of the film’s attempts to unify its female audience with Deanna making many statements over the course of the film about how women are always fighting against each other and never realizing what makes them special beyond societal expectations. Again a lot of this is lost in the film due to poor handling of the material, but for what it’s worth “Life of the Party” has a few things to say and the performers, especially McCarthy, do their best to get the point across without losing touch of the lighthearted nature of the film.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
While the core of this film is fun and we get great humor, fun acting, and a few important social messages it’s all presented in a muddled, disorganized and unfocused mess of a story that never quite settles on what it wants to be. While I found the film amusing and entertaining I was actually confused at some points about exactly what kind of movie I was watching. It doesn’t fully commit to being a typical oddball McCarthy comedy but also fails to fully cash in on its sentiment. It feels like a mishmash of humorous moments that someone sat down and tried to write a story around. In other words “Life of the Party” suffers from the same mistake many other genre pieces often do by forsaking story for the humor and failing to pick a direction. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, it’s extremely difficult to balance comedy and drama together and when you try and fail you get a messy result like this.
It’s actually sad because McCarthy and Falcone wrote the film together and this does not seem like the kind of work they would churn out. It’s funny yes, but it’s a hard film to follow where conflicts seems to be resolved at the snap of a finger and some of the funniest moments come from so far out of left field they don’t really match the story playing out around them. “Life of the Party” lacks pacing and focus and feels chaotic in the worst ways which, for me, took me out of the experience a few times because there were moments where I truly forgot why I had to care. There was potential here for a very touching story that could blend well with the humor layered over it, but there’s no cohesion between the comedy and the narrative.
More than anything though I found “Life of the Party” to be uninspired. The concept has been played out before on the big screen and the humor is reminiscent of McCarthy and Falcone’s past projects leaving “Life of the Party” feeling more like a retread than an inventive spin on the college comedy subgenre. In the past this dynamic duo have touched on unique stories with a sense of humor with films like “Tammy” and “The Boss”, but here “Life of the Party” just doesn’t feel fresh or new. It feels like they settled for what worked and tried to make it work again. It’s a formula that succeeds a lot in modern cinema, but it falls flat with this project unfortunately. We’ve seen stories like this play out much smoother and with more heart and soul in the past. Even with a great cast and some memorable funny moments mixed in “Life of the Party” lacks its own identity and direction and that, more than anything else, makes it feel tired and cliché even after just one viewing.
I wanted to like “Life of the Party”, and in some ways I actually did. I loved the cast, both new and old, and McCarthy is always a breath of fresh air in a genre that lacks many truly capable leading figures, man or woman, these days. I can say this, “Life of the Party” is fun and funny at times in the best ways, but these laughs aren’t enough to save it from a bland screenplay and poor direction with an unfocused story that refuses to commit to being either an outrageous comedy or a touching dramedy and never really falls in between either. Overall it’s just a fun mess and does little justice to the talent behind or in front of the camera. There’s a lack of innovation and creativity that can’t be forgiven, but I’d be lying if “Life of the Party” didn’t have its own special charm worthy of respect. For me it was fun, but not memorable. It was funny but not engaging. It was just kind of there.