It’s hard not to appreciate Melissa McCarthy. The lengths to which she’ll go to sell a bit, falling down, rolling on the floor, stuffing her face full of wedding cake, falling down some more — she’s the hardest working woman in show business. There were numerous times throughout her latest movie, Life of the Party, that I wanted to stand up and applaud, for the sheer effort of it all.
But I felt the urge to applaud more than I felt the urge to laugh. Is it possible that… she shouldn’t have to work this hard? She can’t work much harder, but there’s some room for her to work smarter. Too much of that Herculean comedic exertion is spent in the service of trying to dig herself out of so-so bits.
And it was McCarthy, after all, who conceived those so-so bits in Life of the Party. She co-wrote the film with her husband, Ben Falcone, who also directs (as was the case on The Boss and Tammy before it). McCarthy plays Deanna, whose husband, Dan (Veep‘s Matt Walsh) tells her he wants a divorce as soon as they’ve dropped their daughter (Molly Gordon) off at college. He delivers the news matter-of-factly and unnecessarily cruelly, leaving Deanna shell-shocked in her “Proud Mom” sweater as Dan explains that he’s running off with their realtor (Modern Family‘s Julie Bowen). Walsh and McCarthy imbue the bitty scene with more life than any reasonable screenwriter could’ve expected, but like most things in Life of the Party, they’re projecting to the cheap seats, the story on-the-nose enough that you could understand it even if you didn’t speak the language. Did you miss Deanna’s backstory? Don’t worry, it’s printed on her sweater.
The impending divorce sends Deanna on a journey of self-discovery, and yadda yadda yadda she goes back to college, to finish the archaeology degree she left a year early in order to marry Dan and become a homemaker all those years ago. But not before an impossibly shrill scene featuring Deanna’s parents (Jackie Weaver and Stephen Root) in which her dad finds out about the divorce and almost shoots the family dog for some reason (?).
Anyway, the poster promises Melissa McCarthy going back to college and go back to college she does, where she gets tied up with her daughter’s sorority, a weird-girl roommate named Leanor (Heidi Gardner), and a cute boy named Jack (“wow, you have really intricate hair,” Deanna tells Jack at a party, in one of the film’s better lines). The biggest problem with Life of the Party is that it has a tendency to reach for “big” or really “out there” jokes without addressing the elephants in the room. For instance, we can accept that Deanna wants to go back to college, but the movie just sort of takes it on assumption that she would also move into the dorms with a roommate like a teenager. College seniors rarely even live in dorm rooms, let alone double dorm rooms, let alone 45-year-old women returning to college after 25 years.
I get it, it’s a broad comedy, and if you want to explore the comedic possibilities of a mom having to live with a weird roommate in a dorm, fine. But isn’t it worth one conversation of explanation? That’s where jokes could go. Instead, we get a five-minute riff in which one of Deanna’s daughter’s friends (Jessie Ennis) tells Deanna that she’s “really making lemons out of lemonade,” which isn’t especially funny.
It’s especially frustrating because Life of the Party itself offers counterexamples. Like when Deanna meets her daughter’s friend Helen, played by Gillian Jacobs. Your first thought is, “Hey, isn’t Gillian Jacobs like 30?” But before you can finish it, Deanna is asking Helen why she seems a bit older, and Helen’s explaining that she came to college late because she was in a coma for eight years. Perfect! Our concerns have been addressed, and with a joke to boot.
Even the broadest comedy works better if you address the obvious (and we would forgive a lot to excuse Gillian Jacobs’ presence because she’s the only supporting character here who manages to nail the right tone). Life of the Party occasionally just ignores it, not really acknowledging Deanna’s true insanity. McCarthy can occasionally battle through her own writing, eking out physical laughs through sheer grit and elbow grease (like during a scene where Deanna is having a panic attack during an oral presentation, which doesn’t make any sense for the character, but McCarthy’s line reads and paroxysms make funny anyway), but… you sort of wish she didn’t have to. And when I say “broad,” what I mean is a premise that reminds you more of other premises than one that feels like or reminds you of real life.
I suspect this is less a case of McCarthy and Falcone trying to make life harder for themselves than them simply trying to work within the current commercial realities of studio comedy filmmaking. The same way studios are taking fewer and fewer risks with big tentpoles, increasingly pouring their money into a handful of big “event” movies and trying to ensure that those movies are “big” enough to warrant the cost, they seem to be simultaneously attempting to embiggen the few comedies they do greenlight. Every premise has to be worthy of a poster, every joke has to be HUGE, and if anyone doesn’t get it, you’ve failed. It follows that so many jokes would be too on-the-nose in a climate where studios are so loathe to take chances.
Studio comedies seem to be suffering from the same loss of dynamic range that happened in music, such that we’re now in the midst of the same kind of “loudness war.” There isn’t much room for small jokes or personal stories. In the era of taking no chances, it all starts with a tried-and-true premise. All of the big studio comedies this year have taken a transparent “____ meets ____” approach — a comedic version of The Game in Game Night, a gender-swapped American Pie from the parents’ perspective in Blockers, and in Life Of The Party, a sort of Never Been Kissed meets a gender-swapped Old School.
Even within that framework, Life of the Party still manages to add homages to classic college comedies, recreating everything from the “was it over when…” scene from Animal House to the big party to save-the-day from PCU. In this case with Christina Aguilera bizarrely standing in for George Clinton (do college kids still listen to Christina Aguilera? I thought that was what they listened to when I was in college).
In hitting so many bullet points from the boardroom presentation justifying its existence, it’s a wonder that Life of the Party manages to work in anything personal or natural at all. And it does, which is a testament to the talent of the people involved (McCarthy, Gillian Jacobs, and Maya Rudolph especially). I just wish I could see them in a movie that wasn’t trying to be everything to everyone.