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Party Pooper  

Melissa McCarthy
Melissa McCarthy
New Line Cinema
 105 Minutes
Directed by: Ben Falcone
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Gillian Jacobs  
LIfe of the Party

Melissa McCarthy is a very funny person, as her appearances on Saturday Night Live amply demonstrate. She can take mediocre material and make it hilarious. So, you would think that pairing her with a director who happens to be her real life husband Ben Falcone, the man who presumably knows her better than anyone, would yield comic gold. Unfortunately, you would be wrong. In McCarthy’s latest film, Life of the Party, her third teaming with Falcone and McCarthy (the two also co-wrote the script) winds up being a dud for seemingly the least likely of reasons: it simply isn’t funny.


The setup of Life of the Party seems tailor made for McCarthy. She plays Deanna Miles, a 40-something housewife whose life is shattered when hubby Dan abruptly tells her, on the eve of a planned vacation to Italy, that he wants a divorce so he can marry local realtor Marcie (Julie Bowen). After a lot of soul searching, Deanna decides that what she wants to do next is to go back to the same college where she dropped out some 20 years earlier when she became pregnant. Now, she hopes to get her diploma alongside her daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon), who is a senior at the university.


Despite having the fashion sense of a bag lady and a pop culture awareness that’s 30 years out of date, Deanna, who has been given the nickname Dee-Rock, soon endears herself to Maddie’s sorority sisters, who take her under their wing and help give her an extreme makeover. Dee-Rock winds up going to the same parties as the college girls and even winds up bedding a hunky frat boy, Jack (Luke Benward), who apparently is smitten by the older woman’s savvy in the sack, leading to a May-December romance of sorts between the two. Dee-Rock winds up being somewhat of a cross between a house mother and an extremely cool older sister to the sorority girls, and she helps them through some of the issues they have in their lives.


Of course, the sorority girls are there to help Dee-Rock too, especially when her divorce from Dan turns exceedingly ugly, following an incident in which Dee-Rock and the gals trash Dan’s wedding reception. Soon, she is faced with the prospect of being completely cut off by Dan financially and unable to come up with the money to finish her final year in college. Dee-Rock and her sorority sisters finally come up with the idea of holding a fund raiser involving a house party at which Christina Aguilera is supposed to attend. At this point, you can probably guess what big name star will put in an unbilled cameo appearance in the film.


If the overall storyline of Life of the Party seems familiar, it should, because Rodney Dangerfield made a film, Back to School, with the exact same premise in 1986. The biggest difference between the two movies is that Dangerfield’s film played directly into his strengths as a comic. He was essentially playing the same character that he played earlier in Caddyshack and was pitted against the same type of stuck-up snobbish foils that he had bested a few years earlier in Caddyshack. The key was that Dangerfield had to work to succeed, not at his classes (the running joke was that he was pretty much a terrible student), but against the “establishment,” with the end result being winning the admiration of his son. Back to School was no classic, but it was funny and quite successful.


Dee-Rock seemingly faces the same challenges in Life of the Party that Dangerfield faced three decades earlier. However, Melissa McCarthy’s movie lacks bite; she wins the acceptance of everyone at the school very quickly (there are two snooty girls from a rival sorority with whom Dee-Rock clashes, but she prevails rather easily). The only real foil she faces in the movie is Dan, and their accidental encounter in a restaurant, leading to the revelation of the biggest surprise in the film, is by far the funniest scene in the entire movie.


I actually think that Life of the Party would have played better as a straight drama than as a supposed comedy. McCarthy can be an excellent dramatic actress, and the idea of her having to graduate in order to get a decent job while, at the same time, gaining acceptance in a harsher environment would have made for, at the least, a solid melodrama. Instead, with the exception of the rather bizarre relationship between Dee-Rock and Jack, the audience spends most of the movie waiting futilely for something funny to happen. The low moment of the movie is a completely unbelievable scene in which Dee-Rock must give an oral presentation to graduate, but, instead, she completely falls apart into a sweaty, incoherent mess. It’s a painful scene to watch, not for what Dee-Rock is going through, but for what Melissa McCarthy is going through, flailing around and trying to milk humor out of a situation that director Falcone lets continue far too long.


Although in collaborative efforts like Life of the Party, it’s sometimes difficult to assess the blame for such a creative misfire, Falcone would appear to be the most likely suspect. The film is never able to settle on an identity for Dee-Rock that would give McCarthy some material to work with (a problem Rodney Dangerfield certainly didn’t have three decades earlier). Further, the movie squanders some genuinely original supporting characters, including Helen (Gillian Jacobs), an older (as in late 20’s, not Dee-Rock aged) student known as Coma Girl, because she had been in a coma for eight years. That premise seems ready made for dozens of jokes, but all the movie does with it is to establish some sweet chemistry between Jacobs and McCarthy. Similarly, Dee-Rock’s roommate, a perpetually surly Goth (played by Heidi Gardner) who never goes out of her room. The character has a wealth of comic possibilities but winds up being little more than a rather surprising plot device.


Life of the Party is not a total disaster because its star, Melissa McCarthy, is likable throughout the movie, and the only really cringeworthy scenes are those in which her character tries to deliver her presentation. But the only comic scenario the film exploits at all successfully is the romance between her and two-decades-her-junior Luke Benward, and even those scenes are only intermittently funny. Frankly, audiences deserve better than a handful of intermittently funny scenes from one of today’s most talented comic actresses, especially in a setup that is rife with possibilities. Life of the Party would have fared far better had Melissa McCarthy actually lived up to the description of her title character.  

In this featurette, director Ben Falcone a scene in which Melissa McCarthy brings down the house.

Read other reviews of Life of the Party: 

Life of the Party (2018) on IMDb