FILM REVIEW – LIFE OF THE PARTY. With Melissa McCarthy, Molly Gordon, Heidi Gardner, Stephen Root, Maya Rudolph. Written by Ben Falcone, Melissa McCarthy. Directed by Ben Falcone. Rated PG-13 for sexual material, drug content and partying. 96 minutes.
LIFE OF THE PARTY is an uneven mess, but for a Melissa McCarthy vehicle it’s a vast improvement over most of her previous movies. She and director and co-writer Ben Falcone (to whom she is married) seem to have finally figured out that playing the bull in the china shop character was not doing her any favors. Instead, by making her character sympathetic, there are moments when one can’t help but be on her side, cheering her on.
As Deanna, we first see her as she and her husband (Matt Walsh) are dropping off their daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon) for her final year of college. No sooner have they done that when he announces he’s leaving Deanna for another woman. Devastated, Deanna decides to go back to college to finish the archeology degree she gave up for marriage. The notion of mother and daughter at the same college at the same time is a rich premise, and Falcone and McCarthy manage to hit the targets as many times as they miss.
Of course, the obvious story is the embarrassment Maddie feels, but her friends (Jessie Ennis, Adria Arjona, Gillian Jacobs) – who are all rather quirky themselves – think Deanna is cool, and eventually, Maddie is cool with her mother being one of the girls… except when they share a “walk of shame” the morning after a frat party. One of the jokes is that Jack (Luke Benward) has the hots for Deanna, and while she knows the age difference ought to put the kibosh on things, she keeps allowing herself to be swept away. Such is the cleverness of the script that there’s a delicious twist to their relationship, and such is its sloppiness that the storyline becomes an unfinished loose end. Similarly, we’re set up for a confrontation with two obnoxious “mean girls” (Debby Ryan, Yani Simone) that never really comes to a head.
That pretty much sums up the movie. There are moments that work wonderfully, such as her relationship with her reclusive roommate (Heidi Gardner), and moments that fall flat, like her trashing the wedding reception for her ex-husband. However, through it all McCarthy avoids her previous incarnation as the female Adam Sandler, constantly in everyone’s face, and instead gives us a woman who put her life on hold finally reclaiming control. In the film’s most sensitive nod to realism, it acknowledges both Deanna’s regrets about her marriage and her absolute devotion to the daughter it produced. Tapping into that motherliness may not always be the right choice for her, but here it allows her to be a mentor to the other young women while also accepting their advice in navigating the collegiate world decades after she left it.
As a critic who has detested much of her body of work (except for her amazing turn as former Trump press secretary Sean Spicer on “Saturday Night Live”), “Life of the Party” suggests that she (and perhaps her husband/collaborator Falcone) have given serious thought to her movie roles and what the future might hold. If it’s a flawed film, it also should be considered a big step in a new – and promising – direction.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.