Deanna (Melissa McCarthy) and her husband Dan (Matt Walsh) are dropping off their daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon) at the sorority house for her final year of college. Maddie isn’t out of the car more than a minute before Dan informs Deanna that he wants a divorce and is selling the house.
This instigates Deanna to go back to school and finish her degree, which she had to abandon 20 years earlier when she got pregnant. Now she will be attending college in the same graduating class as her daughter. Hilarity ensues. In theory.
McCarthy brings her usual charm to her bubbly, optimistic character, but it isn’t enough to elevate the material. Like with many of McCarthy’s films, her performance is the major draw. But the script isn’t doing her many favors. A surprise, considering she co-wrote it.
Sure, there are a few pointedly humorous scenes. Most of them include Maya Rudolph as McCarthy’s best friend sidekick. The divorce hearing and dinner scenes are the funniest in the entire film, mainly due to Rudolph.
These scenes are notably removed from the main setting: the university. Most scenes in this setting—scenes that are meant to further the plot—are bland or littered with improv that is almost free associative in nature.
And the few stakes that are introduced in these college locales are uninteresting—bullies, one night stands, an oral presentation. Yet it is these boring causes of conflict that overshadow the more important character arc of Deanna and her relationship with Maddie.
There is a lost movie in this premise. It is a movie about the power of positivity and self-identity that is only briefly touched upon when Deanna gives a rousing pep talk to the sorority. It is a movie about how college is a place where people come into their own, regardless of their age or background. It is a movie where a mother and daughter, a girl famous for being in a coma (Gillian Jacobs), a self-alienating shut-in (Heidi Gardner), and a handful of other unique characters come together in a sisterhood to accomplish an over-arching goal.
Life of the Party is almost that movie. But its message is lost in tedious, superficial conflict. Its characters too quickly have a bonding chemistry that renders their individuality moot by the film’s climax. The over-arching goal is introduced far too late, and it is achieved too expediently (and by a non-sequitur celebrity cameo, no less).
Ultimately, there is not a whole lot of life in Life of the Party, aside from the performances of McCarthy and Rudolph. The plot is largely uninspired and unfocused. Seeds are sown for characters to have genuine relationships with each other. These are largely abandoned, replaced with lackluster punchlines. The film is an inoffensive comedy, but its sheer optimism doesn’t in and of itself provide purpose.
Life of the Party: C-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)