by Joe Hammerschmidt
Earlier this year, I experienced newfound hope in the wrong-turned ship known as the “standard studio comedy”, when Game Night debuted and left me quasi-speechless toward future vitality. The best comedies tend to work when the material is equally original and committed to its proposed strengths. Almost on cue, we’re snapped back to reality and certain lowered expectations. That cue is Melissa McCarthy and her brash sense of humor, often physical and always unapologetic whenever she steps into frame. She’s not a perfect actress, but it’s too easy to spot when her work is really coming through. In Life of the Party, for all its faults, McCarthy and collaborator/husband Ben Falcone stride past to try for a third opportunity at comic gold; the last two, Tammy and The Boss, simply can’t hold a candle (or a set of them) to where we’re taken here, even if it’s nothing entirely new. Think The House, only not as lackadaisical.
McCarthy starts out the film, in a form restricted, however, as honest-to-goodness Midwestern mom Deanna sends her only kid, Maddie (Molly Gordon) off to the fictional Decatur University (possibly modeled after Millikin), tears of joy in her eyes. Those tears change in tone the moment husband Dan (Matt Walsh) begins to insist on a divorce. Essentially, her whole world begins to crumble, until either the best or worst possible idea emerges: pulling a Back to School, going back to her alma mater to complete her unfinished degree in archeology, much to Maddie’s initial chagrin.
I was so close to writing off this film as McCarthy’s middle-age shtick throughout the first act already began to wore thin. Luckily enough, as the glasses come off, and the hair is pushed up a little, her best traits just leave a more startling impression on screen through the leftover runtime. The obvious niches she and Falcone in their script tend to fall, not so much on palpable one-liners, but mostly on physicality and a rogue’s gallery of supporting characters aiding to bolster McCarthy when she falls short. Astonishingly enough, that stands to be the rule and not the exception.
Said supportive cast have fair appeal, though unable to shed the generic stock appeal they hail from, all caricatures of characters one may have seen in past college movies. There’s the preppy anti-hero, accurately portrayed by former Disney Channel staple Debby Ryan, taking the part as cliche as one could get yet confident in her career evolution. One small step toward some much greater down the line, perhaps. Next to her, Chris Parnell as the instructor who’s very much out of touch with the current generation of students, a common inclusion yet the actor’s natural charm is like a welcome reflex in the musculature. Stephen Root and Jacki Weaver are disastrously underused as Deanna’s supportive and gun-toting parents, almost stereotypical to the degree of home-spun midwestern-isms. Maya Rudolph’s overeager bestie character offers some of the stronger one-liners. And appearing as confident as ever, Modern Family’s Julie Bowen makes rather large waves holding Mr. Walsh’s hand as the new “replacement wife”, a social media-friendly real estate agent with the world on her string, the absolute bane to Deanna’s existence, going as far as awkwardly sabotaging a wedding reception to interject forced revenge or conflict. She too is rather underused; had more time been invested in a rather staunch rivalry between the pair, we could have forgiven the simple predictability inherent.
Focusing on one important area of a valuable top-dollar Hollywood script does mean sacrificing the desire for originality, and avoiding any safety nets that seem comfortable, only to weigh the product down. McCarthy and Falcone ultimately cannot keep all their eggs in a single basket, the film’s wavering imbalance causing half the payload to drop by the finish line. There are many moments where everything can be held in place, often through the actress’s staunch determination, then the next scene could be not as coherent by a lack of oversight. A million laughs still float around; I’m still rather surprised how much I did enjoy. But let it not go unsaid that the work can lack substance and vice versa. And that may be where those important expectations fall into play, where we want to enjoy a comedy for its base pleasure. In that context, McCarthy and Falcone played the cards accurately. However, if one were to attempt injecting high meaning, substance, or long-term purpose, the prong would have a hard time escaping the other side with the potential knowledge acquired.
The laughs just come with a cost, a specific loss of inner meaning one would hope could be there, most likely in that pure unbridled collegiate sorority sisterhood. You sense the bond, you find it interesting to look at, yet it can only contribute so little as opposed to what the writing duo get right, which likely just amounts to that wide range in character development. The only place where that hinders is in Deanna’s insistence on a cougar-esque relationship with a much younger student, the only area of the plot that may not have settled in just right against McCarthy’s raunchy flair, despite Luke Benward schmoozing on the charm as thick as a marker.
I’m confident Life of the Party may prove more rewatchable romp than Tammy, bare minimum. The husband-wife duo who consider this film a passion project, and perhaps a secondary take on redemption, have learned so much in making the best of a half-decent plot, but still have far to go. You’d be hard-pressed to find another comedy this year that was as hit-and-miss. When it all works, then it’s fun; otherwise, the wasted potential can stay rather frustrating, its restrictive PG-13 rating likely didn’t help either. Sometimes, we just have to take on each one equally, despite those inconsistencies, which eventually could always certain writers to learn, and grow. Also, the emphasis on female empowerment couldn’t be better timed for Mother’s Day, so that could just as easily work in its favor too. (C+)
Life of the Party is in most area theaters this weekend; rated PG-13 for sexual material, drug content and partying; 105 minutes.