Life of the Party is a comedy in which a housewife belatedly returns to university for the final year of her degree when her husband dumps her, while their daughter attends her final year at the same school.
Oh dear. I had a few hours to kill this afternoon and liked Melissa McCarthy in Ghostbusters, so thought I’d give Life of the Party a shot. I honestly wish I hadn’t bothered.
McCarthy wrote this film with her husband Ben Falcone (who also directed it) and don’t ask me why, but I am sure they can do better. There is a reasonable story with some character development, and the direction – though uninspired – fits the gentle comedy style. But comedies I enjoy are funny or at the very least entertaining; this one was just mildly funny a couple of times and barely entertaining, so safe and generally nice that it was almost lame.
Melissa McCarthy plays Deanna, who says goodbye to her daughter (Molly Gordon) for her final year at Decatur University; the same college she and her husband went to before she dropped out due to pregnancy. As they start their journey home, Deanna’s husband Dan (Matt Walsh) announces he wants a divorce. After a brief tantrum, tipsy racket-ball session and a ritual burning of (his?) belongings, Deanna shakes it all off with a decision to finish the archaeology degree that she had loved so much over twenty years earlier, hoping it will reset her life.
But this is the “gentle comedy” type, with just the bit of going wild that a 12a certificate permits. So although Deanna is at the same university as her daughter, there’s no screaming rivalry or hair-pulling. She scores a handsome student (during the first of three parties), but there’s minimal lewdness and no undressing. There’s even a catfight, but Deanna breaks it up before there are any clothes torn. This is a film that tells girls to be nice to each other and support each other; but honestly, it’s so righteous and saccharine that it may as well have been a Hallmark TV matinee. It’s a message that would have fitted just as well in domestic settings of two hundred years ago: keep smiling and looking out for each other and girls will do fine.
(Deanna turns to the class ***** at one point and says “Are we still doing this?” But I spotted nothing truly modern or cutting edge; Life of the Party could have been set in virtually any decade from the last fifty.)
OK, there were a few things I liked about Life of the Party. Some of the supporting characters were neatly drawn and well portrayed; most notably Gillian Jacobs as Helen, a sorority sister known for starting university late, due to being in a coma for eight years; and Maya Rudolph as Christine, Deanna’s neurotic best friend. Rudolph is apparently McCarthy’s best mate in real life, and that chemistry is clear. There is also very believable chemistry between Deanna and the young man (Luke Benward) she pulls. The casting overall is one of the plus points, although Adria Arjona (who had such a strong role in The Belko Experiment) was sorely underused; and I didn’t even recognize the usually striking Jacki Weaver.
I also liked that there were no attempts at fat jokes, and no my-gender-is-better-than-yours jokes, both of which seem to be difficult to escape in contemporary American humor. There were some jokes about physical beauty and age, but not many, and they were successfully slapped down. To be honest, there weren’t many jokes at all. More effort was spent on visual, performance comedy than verbal jokes; and somehow Melissa McCarthy still talks too damn much! Unfortunately, one of the best scenes (where Deanna was obliged to give a presentation for her course, through nerves and gritted teeth) was well crafted but – to me – too painful to be funny.
The Eighties dance off scene – in full Dynasty-style regalia – was a small highlight of Life of the Party, but it was the top of a big pile of shiny comedy tropes: husband’s younger woman, accidental cannabis high, frumpy to free, getting the goth to go outdoors, trashing a posh party… oh and of course the makeover for the shy girl.
There was nothing new or outstanding in Life of the Party, apart from how bloody tame and unfunny it was. My recommendation is to wait until it comes to your chosen streaming service; in the meantime perhaps watch Ghostbusters again.
Alix has been writing for Ready Steady Cut since November 2017. They cover a wide variety, including genre festivals, and especially appreciates wit and representation on screen.