Pro tip: When Melissa McCarthy’s husband, Ben Falcone, appears in one of her films, don’t worry about it. He has bit parts in most of her films, including the best ones. He was, for instance, the amorous air marshal in Bridesmaids, the movie that made McCarthy a star. The arrangement is actually rather endearing: He’s like the Stan Lee of the MMCU. (That’s the Melissa McCarthy Cinematic Universe for those of you unfamiliar with the lingo.)
When Falcone directs and co-writes with McCarthy, however … Well, extreme caution is advised. On the one hand, I admire McCarthy’s desire to have more control over the filmmaking process, and I love a good spousal work duo. But on the other: Tammy (24 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), The Boss (22 percent), and now, Life of the Party.
The title may be generic, but the plot is rather specific: It’s a gender-swapped updating of Rodney Dangerfield’s 1986 megahit Back to School. In that movie, Dangerfield played Thornton Melon, a variation on his groundbreaking Al Czervik from Caddyshack, another extraordinarily rich but definitionally crude and ignorant “everyman.” (No, the contemporary relevance is not lost on me.)
Like Thornton, McCarthy’s character, Deanna Miles, is a parent abruptly and unexpectedly facing divorce, whose response to this ill wind is to reenroll in college and get the degree she’d never attained. And like Thornton, Deanna’s school of choice is the same one attended by her only child. In a word: Awkward!
As with the premise, the principal difference between the movies is gender-based: Where Thornton was a crass bully, Deanna is a vulnerable sweetheart who wears ridiculously sparkled and spangled sweaters, an irresistible target for the mean girls of Decatur University, principal among them Jennifer (Debby Ryan, or Disney’s “Jessie,” for those of you with tween children). The result is a film more gentle than Back to School, but also less funny and more tonally incoherent. (These qualities were shared by Tammy and The Boss.)
When Deanna first arrives on campus, her daughter, Maddie (Molly Gordon), is suitably nonplussed. But it only takes a scene or two for Deanna to endear herself to Maddie’s friends and sorority mates (principally, Gillian Jacobs, Jessie Ennis, and Adria Arjona). Soon enough, she is the, um, “life of the party” on a regular basis, including at a “Back to the ’80s” dance shindig that seems oddly eager to advertise the movie’s borderline plagiarism of Back to School. I can only assume that Danny Elfman’s financial demands for the use of an Oingo Boingo song outstripped the movie’s budget.
There are a few good lines thrown in here and there. After an especially vigorous dance experience, Deanna tells her newfound college friends, “I felt that in my C-section scar.” But many of the gags fall flat—Deanna’s flop-sweat-and-fainting oral presentation in archaeology class; her trashing of her remarrying ex-husband’s wedding reception; a painfully telegraphed celebrity cameo—and there’s virtually no flow from one scene to the next. (It is perhaps worth noting here that both McCarthy and Falcone got their start in improv.) I’d like to condemn the plotline in which Deanna has an ongoing affair with an undergraduate (Luke Benward) for being utterly gross—which it is; even Dangerfield didn’t cross that bridge. But it does supply at least two of the movie’s funnier moments: a late-in-the-game parental reveal, and Deanna’s comment, after her first sexual assignation: “He kept yelling, ‘Please, more,’ and I thought he was doing a scene out of Oliver!”
Matt Walsh (as Deanna’s departing husband) and Julie Bowen (as his new love interest) are both wasted in dull one-note roles. Ditto Jacki Weaver and Stephen Root as Deanna’s parents. Even Maya Rudolph (as Deanna’s best friend) is less wonderful than usual, which takes some doing. And while McCarthy does what she can with the material provided her, it’s not nearly enough to save the movie. As a result, Life of the Party doesn’t live up to either of the nouns in its title.