Mother’s Day is this Sunday, and the pre-holiday rollout continues this weekend with another flick for moms, Melissa McCarthy’s Life of the Party. The film eyes a strategy similar to Amy Schumer’s Snatched, another mother-daughter laugher that opened during the same frame last year to mediocre reviews and a modest box office run. 2018 looks to be no different: opening alongside Gabrielle Union’s thriller Breaking In, Life of the Party is the opposite of its title – a grating, lazy, unoriginal comedy that is devoid of any imagination, wit, or inspired set pieces.
Life of the Party is directed by McCarthy’s husband, Ben Falcone, and is the third film the couple has helmed together following Tammy in 2014, and The Boss in 2016. Neither of those movies have been exactly well-received by critics; in fact, they are rather reviled. Nonetheless, Tammy was a box office smash, garnering over $100 million, while The Boss scored $80 million with a budget just under $30 million. Even as Life of the Party aims to capitalize on a boosted Mother’s Day attendance, it stands to see if the comedienne’s success with banality will remain in 2018.
In her latest film, Melissa McCarthy stars as Deanna Miles, a middle-aged mother who goes back to college to complete her senior year the same time as her daughter. After dropping her beloved Maddie (Molly Gordon) off at Decatur University for her last year of school, her penny-pinching husband Dan (Matt Walsh) abruptly informs her that he has been having an affair with a realtor named Marcie (Julie Bowen), and wants a divorce. Though initially stunned, Deanna decides to go back to Decatur University to finish her senior year, and quickly seizes a new lease on life.
The premise of a parent going to college the same time as their child is not a new concept. For example, Life of the Party is suspiciously similar to Back to School, a 1986 comedy that starred Rodney Dangerfield as a wealthy father who gets a divorce, then consecutively decides to join his struggling son in college to cheer him up and change his mind about dropping out. Not that this next one exactly matters, but the film heavily reminded me of the Disney cartoon sequel An Extremely Goofy Movie, in which Goofy goes back to college the same time as his son Max.
The difference between Life of the Party and these two examples I noted above, is that McCarthy’s film focuses on a woman and a mother, which some may argue, flips a known concept on its head, and holds value in the name of empowering women in the fashion of 2011’s Bridesmaids (in which McCarthy also had a role). However, the gimmick isn’t quite as innovative in Life of the Party, as the film rather just recycles clichéd college scenarios that usually involve men, and aren’t depicted here with the knack for relating these situations to the female experience.
Some of these scenarios include moving in with a bizarre roommate, joining the Greek community, going to parties, dating, and surviving classes. McCarthy’s awkward teddy bear-momma routine only has so much mileage, and the actress quickly exasperates her supply of effective improv as she shuffles between scene after scene reeking of poor one-liners and utter absence of imagination. Deanna’s vampire roommate is an example that is amusing at the start, but like many other comical developments in the film, this gets repeated to ad nauseum.
One odd thing about the movie is that McCarthy and Falcone, as writers, focus much more on Deanna’s midlife crisis, touring her on all the staples of college, rather than mulling humor out of Deanna cramping Maddie’s style. Sure, Deanna embarrasses her early on by recounting childhood stories, but the pair are soon comfortable enough to even attend the same parties. Here the value of the female angle could have been used to greater effect, but McCarthy prefers the college cliché circuit, hoping to earn chuckles from ineffective fish-out-of-water gags.
Some skits just fall flat, such as when Deanna fumbles a particularly disastrous class speech. Some are more disconcerting, like a romantic relationship between Deanna and a young frat member. Others are just painful, including a drug-induced raid on Deanna’s ex-husband’s wedding reception. And despite a skilled cast of supporting actors with Gillian Jacobs, Maya Rudolph, and Stephen Root, these proven talents are mostly wasted on badly-conceived characterizations, such as having slept in a coma for six years, or being happy with a shotgun.
Some of the casting, however, is purely terrible. Molly Gordon, for one, lacks any spark of life as Deanna’s daughter. When her mother tells her that her father is divorcing her for another woman, Maddie has a strangely casual reaction. As Deanna tortures her with humiliating behavior, her response is devoid of any comic value. Later, as the hackneyed script forces the mother and daughter to bond, Maddie’s affection is decidedly phony. Disney star Debby Ryan also shows up as a “mean girl,” and doesn’t convince due to being written as pure caricature.
And that’s most of the problem with Life of the Party: a script that is lacking in any real value, that is reliant on actors for improvisation, and offers a distasteful end product. Just as last year’s Lady Bird wasn’t a masterpiece just for applying the well-trodden coming-of-age story to a female, Life of the Party doesn’t earn a place solely by updating its common premise with a mother instead of a father. The difference with Lady Bird, however, is competent execution; Life of the Party doesn’t have this. For a better outing this Mother’s Day, go see Charlize Theron in Tully, now playing.