What’s a school comedy without a dance off?
Real-life husband and wife team Ben Falcone and Melissa McCarthy have teamed up twice before in a director/lead capacity to create the disappointing Tammy and modestly funny The Boss — films that fell well short of showcasing McCarthy’s comedic talent as effectively as The Heat or Spy. Let’s find out if their third attempt to harness McCarthy’s humour, Life of the Party, fares any better.
Moments after dropping her daughter off for her senior year at Decatur University, Deanna (McCarthy) is told by her husband Dan (Matt Walsh) that he’s fallen in love with another woman and will be divorcing her. Devastated, Deanna regroups by re-enrolling in college, having dropped out with a year remaining to give birth to Maddie (Molly Gordon).
As a newly single mom, Deanna is embraced by Maddie’s sorority sisters, who help modernize her look and take her out to socialize at various parties. During one of these Deanna meets Jack (Luke Benward) and ends up sleeping with him, helping turn the page on her husband’s pending marriage to Marcie (Julie Bowen).
While having fun and excelling in the classroom, Deanna is also the target of some “mean girls” and makes some questionable decisions that begin to affect her relationship with Maddie and threaten her ability to pay the tuition. Now she’ll need to rally to see things through or end up dropping out of college once again.
While marketed as a goofball comedy, Life of the Party features a surprisingly well-rounded performance from McCarthy, who is presented as smart, capable and desirable — and in an unusual “older woman, younger man” way where the relationship isn’t a setup for forbidden love or as a means to make the daughter embarrassed. It’s actually a pretty empowering story, and it’s unclear why it wasn’t presented that way at all in the trailers.
There’s a number of enjoyable supporting performances from veterans like Maya Rudolph, as McCarthy’s best friend, Bowen and Walsh, as well as newer actresses Gordon and Gillian Jacobs. It’s obvious that a lot of the scenes had loose outlines and were then ad-libbed, which leads to several funny scenes at the restaurant with Bill, the ’80s party, the weed bark and all of its fallout topping the list.
Although ad-libbing has its place, there’s a case to be made for a more focused delivery. That’s painfully obvious during the scenes with McCarthy and SNL veteran Chris Parnell, who plays the archaeology professor that used to be her classmate with a whiff of romance that goes nowhere. Most of the stuff in his class — and there’s a fair amount of it — is rough, including a lengthy scene where McCarthy’s oral presentation goes terribly wrong with almost no setup.
We weren’t big fans of the party at the end, which felt painfully cliche, right down to the “surprise” appearance. A couple of characters also failed to find the mark: Leonor, Deanna’s antisocial goth roommate played by Heidi Garnder, and Jennifer, the popular mean girl. While Leonor is more the character than the performance, with Jennifer it feels like Debby Ryan is doing a knockoff of Jillian Bell in 22 Jump Street.
THE BONUS FEATURES
As with most comedies, the extras contain a lot of alternate takes and flubs. There’s a meaty 45-plus minutes of deleted scenes, many of which are variations of scenes that did appear in the movie. While there’s some good material, it’s a lot to wade through. Gag reels and line-o-rama are your usual stuff, but the “Bill hate” one is worth watching as McCarthy and Rudolph offer up some pretty funny ad-libs.
Life of the Party isn’t as goofy as the trailers make you think. It does offer its fair share of laughs, however, along with McCarty playing a multi-dimensional character.