REVIEW – ‘Life of the Party’

There are few women in Hollywood who work as hard as Melissa McCarthy. Since her Oscar-nominated breakout role in 2011’s Bridesmaids, the actress has barely stopped to take a breath. Notching up nine films in the last seven years, six seasons of Mike & Molly, and hosting Saturday Night Live five times (plus three iconic guest appearances as former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer in 2017), McCarthy never stops. She has firmly established herself as an incomparable comedic force. Even in the most mediocre of films, she somehow rises above. So now we arrive at this year’s obligatory McCarthy fish-out-of-water comedy, Life of the Party. Unfortunately, it falls into that mediocre category.

Lovable and daggy Deanna (McCarthy) is the devoted “Proud Mom” (it’s embroidered on her garish pink jumper) to Maddie (a delightful Debby Ryan), a college senior about to begin her final year at Decatur University. After dropping her daughter off at her almost alma mater, Deanna is ready to spend four weeks in Italy with her dull husband, Dan (an underused Matt Walsh). Before they can even exit the driveway of Maddie’s sorority house, Dan drops a bombshell; he’s fallen in love with real-estate agent, Marcie (Julie Bowen) and wants a divorce.

Adding insult to injury, Dan is keeping their house and refusing to give his wife a cent, leaving Deanna to wallow at the home of her doting parents, Sandy (Jackie Weaver) and Mike (Stephen Root). It’s here she realises her one big regret in life is dropping out of Decatur when she fell pregnant with Maddie, despite having only one year left of her archaeology degree. Encouraged by her best friend, Christine (the ever-reliable Maya Rudolph), Deanna enrols back at her old college and confidently sashays back on campus, much to the horror of her young daughter.

Maddie is naturally rather mortified at having her dorky mother cramping her style, but her new sorority pals Helen (Gillian Jacobs), Amanda (Adria Arjona) and Debbie (Jessie Ennis) take a shining to Deanna, seeing the positive side of having a maternal spirit to help with their problems and boost their spirits. But Deanna soon realises the intrusion she’s having on her daughter’s college life and sets about finding her own place within the school, including catching the eye of hunky student, Jack (Luke Benward). Sadly, from here, Life of the Party falls into a whole pile of typical clichés associated with this genre.

As Deanna begins to unfurl the wild side of her personality she’s been repressing for so many years, we’re given the usual “finding oneself” ride you get from typical coming-of-age college films. Deanna gets a makeover and suddenly becomes instantly attractive. She battles with mean girl, Jennifer (Debby Ryan) who calls her a relic and makes fun of her dowdy appearance. She has a one-night stand with Jack and is subjected to the unfortunate “walk of shame” the next morning. She unknowingly dabbles in some hash-laced chocolate and enacts some drug-induced chaos at Dan’s wedding. And, of course, she throws a kick-ass sorority party and performs an epic dance routine featuring moves she “never knew she had.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with featuring these tropes in a raucous comedy like this. It makes for entertaining enough viewing and there are far worse ways to kill 105 minutes of your day. But the gags and scenarios all so well-worn by now, it’s really delivering nothing we haven’t seen before. That being said, the film does standout by avoiding the expected eye rolls and drawn-out frustration from Maddie over her mother invading her territory, instead allowing this to subside quickly once she realises it’s actually kinda great to have your mother so close by.

Maddie rightly feels empathy over her mother’s missed opportunities, and rather than stand in her way like most bratty youngsters would, she begins to encourage Deanna to break free of her former shackles. She’s the one responsible for the dazzling transformation, hoping to find the beautiful woman hiding behind the frizzy hair and gaudy outfits. And, naturally, she’s still rather mortified by her mother’s missteps and goofs, but she never stops rooting for Mom to succeed, which is wonderfully endearing. The film is better for this fresh narrative choice and the pair’s connection is the film’s true heart.

The fatal flaw here is the screenplay and direction, both coming from McCarthy’s real-life husband, Ben Falcone. Everything here is well-intentioned and consistently has its heart in the right place, but it’s cobbled together without much of a narrative arc. Life of the Party often feels more like a serious of outlandish vignettes from a TV sitcom as opposed to a fully-fledged theatrical feature. Even at just 105 minutes, it feels much too long and features far too many silly situations than a film like this needs. I lost count of how many party scenes are featured, but it’s definitely three or four too many. But there is a sublime twist towards the end I genuinely didn’t see coming which drew a huge gasp from my audience, so kudos for nailing that part of the screenplay.

That being said, McCarthy never stops trying her damndest to pull this film higher. It’s hard not to be impressed by her work, even if this character feels awfully familiar to ones she’s already delivered in the past. Deanna is exceptionally warm and sweet and it’s impossible to not want to see her succeed. She wants nothing more than to inspire these young girls to avoid her own mistakes and there’s a great message of sisterhood and female empowerment hiding beneath the humour. McCarthy is one of the most endearing actors we’ve got right now, and even in her disappointing films, she never stops being fun to watch.

Most disappointing is how terribly Life of the Party wastes its sublime supporting cast featuring a whole roster of great comedic talents. Rudolph is sparingly used but captures every scene she’s a part of. Likewise with Jacobs, who has a blast with her character’s bizarre backstory of mild infamy from being in a coma for eight years. Chris Parnell is featured as one of Deanna’s professors, but he’s never once allowed to be funny, which is an absolute crime. But the real scene-stealer is current SNL alum Heidi Gardner as Deanna’s deadpan goth roommate Leonor. Her comedic timing is impeccable and her performance is an absolute scream. She’s certainly one to watch.

At the end of the day, Life of the Party is sadly rather forgettable and flat but it’s certainly enjoyable enough to plonk your money down for, like almost anything McCarthy is a part of. It’s sweet and goofy but far from groundbreaking or original. That’s the most you can say for most comedies these days, so it’s far from surprising. Talent like McCarthy and Rudolph deserve better than this, but, of course, they still manage to shine, entertain, and make you laugh. Worth a watch, if you can keep your expectations down.

★★1/2☆☆☆

Distributor: Roadshow
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Gillian Jacobs, Maya Rudolph, Julie Bowen, Matt Walsh, Molly Gordon, Heidi Gardner, Jacki Weaver, Stephen Root, Chris Parnell
Director: Ben Falcone
Screenplay: Ben Falcone, Melissa McCarthy
Producers: Chris Henchy, Melissa McCarthy, Ben Falcone
Cinematography: Julio Macat
Production Design: Rusty Smith
Music: Fil Eisler
Editor: Brian Olds
Running Time: 105 minutes
Release Date: 10th May 2018 (Australia)

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