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.