Following a similar path beaten by Rodney Dangerfield 32 years ago, comic actress Melissa McCarthy goes back to school where her daughter studies. She wants to finish her education and finally get that degree that was almost within reach two decades earlier, interrupted by a marriage and a pregnancy.
Co-written by McCarthy and her real-life husband, Ben Falcone, who also directed and has a small role as a sympathetic Uber driver, Life of the Party begins with that family moment when parents become emotional; they’re dropping their teenage daughter off for the beginning of college. With her middle-aged mom hair curls and garish mom sweaters, the kind with colors and designs that challenge the eye, Deanna (McCarthy) can’t quite let her daughter go. “I’m only 22 minutes away,” Maddie (Molly Gordon) reminds her.
Now that home is officially an empty nest, Deanna and her husband, Dan (Matt Walsh) are about to enjoy a long awaited vacation to Italy. “I’m ready for a little gondola ride with my fellow,” Deanna announces as they pull away from the college. But the husband has a different plan. “I want a divorce!” he blurts.
For some time, Dan has been having an affair with Marcie (Julie Bowen). “The real estate agent?” asks a stunned Deanna. Not just any real estate agent, Dan reminds his thunderstruck wife, “She has a respectable social media following.”
Dan and his new squeeze have it planned. He’s going to move in with the real estate agent and sell the family home. He reminds his wife that the property is in his name, and his name alone. There will be no sharing. In fact, Marcie has already begun the paperwork. After all these years, it turns out that Dan is, and probably always was, a total ass.
Once the tears have subsided, Deanna pulls herself together and decides to do the one thing she had always wanted to do: finish her education and get that archaeology degree. She enrolls at the same college her daughter attends, moves in to the dorm where she shares a room with the oddball goth, Leonor (Heidi Gardner) – “I’m getting a Voldemort vibe” Deanna states – and restarts her education as a dig-head.
What follows is basically what you’ll expect. Mom embarrasses daughter, but daughter’s sorority sisters love her, so daughter reluctantly accepts that mom is on campus to stay. There’s the makeover moment where Maddie straightens her mom’s curls, has her remove the garish mom sweater, and swaps the bright red lipstick for the more subtle mauve; “My favorite,” states Deanna.
There’s the drunken frat house affair where mom becomes the life and soul of the proceedings; the house party where mom and the girls get stoned on what they think is chocolate but is really weed bark; and there’s the Back to the 80’s Party where mom in sparkly eighties garb and big hair enters the room to the sounds of Cyndy Lauper’s Girls Just Want To Have Fun. There’s also the conflict with the college mean girl, Jennifer (Debby Ryan) who sports a nose ring that when caught in the right light looks more like metallic snot. There’s even a fundraiser party where mom and the girls entice a house-load of attendees by pretending that singer Christine Aguilera will be dropping by… and guess who drops by.
Life of the Party is silly fluff. As with 2014’s Tammy and 2016’s The Boss, both co-written and directed by her husband, the film exists solely as a big screen vehicle for McCarthy’s considerable comedic talents. She’s a funny lady, though how far you’ll warm to her Deanna, or the film itself, depends entirely on how much of a fan you are of Melissa McCarthy and her middle-aged mom act. There’s also a good turn from Maya Rudolph as Christine, Deanna’s best friend. Inspired by Deanna’s campus fling with a young student, Jack, (Luke Benward) Christine’s own sex life with her husband suddenly increases.
But while you can check off the next expected situation and predict the outcome, what does impress is the lack of overly suggestive, racy, or crude humor. Despite its PG-13 rating, there for mild sexual references, the partying, and that scene where the girls get high, there’s hardly a moment of profanity or salacious smut. The humor comes mostly from Deanna’s reaction to the kind of college life she doesn’t altogether understand, and the girls’ reaction to her, though admittedly, the scene where mom and the girls trash her ex-husband’s wedding reception when high is more mean spirited than funny.
The film evaporates the moment you leave the theatre. In fact, it’s fizzling as the final scene fades. Plus, several characters, like Deanna’s goth roomate, Leonor, the mean girl, Jennifer, and Helen (Gillian Jacobs) a likable older student who suffered a coma for 8 years, woke up and went to college, feel like setups to lengthy gags that go nowhere; there’s no punchline. But there are laughs along the way.
In the best tradition of farce, a dinner table scene in a restaurant where all the principle characters turn up at the same time and secrets are revealed is stolen by Rudolph, whose reaction and response to everything she sees and hears is genuinely hilarious. Plus, during the basement cloak and dagger ceremony of the girls accepting mom as an honorary sorority sister, the tradition of being whacked on the behind by a paddle is so severe, the pain lingers far longer than expected. “Is someone still hitting me?” a hunched over Deanna cries. That’s funny.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 105 Minutes Overall rating: 5 (out of 10)