Movie Review: Life of the Party
Taking on the part of a middle-aged mom who goes back to school, McCarthy revisits college comedy tropes with a seductive brand of physical comedy and an empathetic edge. Not all the comic concoctions work, but the female perspective makes room for affirmation amid humiliation.
Life of the Party
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, Molly Gordon, Matt Walsh, Julie Bowen, Gillian Jacobs, Adria Arjona, Jessie Ennis and Debby Ryan
Directed by: Ben Falcone
Running time: 135 minutes
By Katherine Monk
Melissa McCarthy wears vulnerability on her sleeve, then she rolls it up and gets to work. She’s got a Jane Lunchbucket approach to comedy that ensures she makes the most of every scene, even the routine bits with bare studs and drywall. The material may be generic, but she’s going to mud it up like a pro — and make everything look seamless. That’s why Life of the Party works, because McCarthy IS the life of the movie.
Playing Deanna, a woman who quit university in her last year to become a mom, McCarthy goes full frontal frumpy in the opening scene when she says goodbye to her daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon) at school. She’s wearing a washed-out “Proud Mom” sweatshirt and a look that reads as hairline heartbreak. But that’s just the beginning.
Her husband breaks up with her on the way home, telling her he wants a divorce so he can marry Marcie (Julie Bowen) — the predictably tightly-wound Pilates devotee who sells real estate. Deanna hits rock bottom, then decides she’s going to kick up and swim back to school.
So yes: Life of the Party is Old School meets Bridesmaids… somewhere in the middle of Animal House. It’s a lot of comic formula to process. Yet, McCarthy and husband-director Ben Falcone wrote this script from a woman’s perspective. Reconstituted with some potentially volatile feminist elements and McCarthy’s own spark, the old formula finds a new composition, but yields uneven results.
There are few fireworks, and some scenes would feel downright inert if it weren’t for McCarthy’s determination to make us laugh. She digs in somehow, and she uses her whole body in the effort — a comedy ninja who uses elegance of execution to kill every gag. Combined with her intellectual toolkit that allows her to drill into the motherlode of everyday female angst, McCarthy is a one-woman show.
Reconstituted with some potentially volatile feminist elements and McCarthy’s own spark, the old formula finds a new composition, but yields uneven results.
This movie is pretty much a showcase of her talents, but little more. The drama comes down to the inevitable mother-daughter chaffing at the sorority house, mean girls, and whether Deanna will be able to find enough money to finish school when her husband takes the house and all her worldly possessions.
The mechanics of the plot are untenable, but the emotional drama is relatable, and to some degree, believable. The young female cast of supporting actors — led by Gordon and including Gillian Jacobs, Adria Arjona, Jessie Ennis and Debby Ryan — is up to the task of playing opposite McCarthy. They set it up, and she spikes it: “These nurtured life… I wear these breasts proudly around my waist.”
By playing an older woman surrounded by young people playing out cliche, she’s able to punch through the paper wall of insecurity — because a great part of her is past all that. She’s a mom, and once you’ve pushed a baby into the world before a room full of spectators, you don’t worry so much about what people think of you. You only think about protecting your baby, and that’s the golden nugget here that frequently gets lost in the parade to scripted bedlam.
Some physical comics make you laugh AT them, at their awkwardness and idiocy. McCarthy may borrow some of the classic shtik (body slam, face plant, full body roll), but she adds something new (boob punch), so just when you think you are laughing AT her, she’s the one laughing first. Plus, she engages you with her warmth, so the result isn’t ridicule, but empathy.
Life of the Party would have been a lot better with fewer cliches, and with a full revision of the college girl tropes.
Then again, maybe all these types — from Goth sloth to pretty bitch — are what we need to laugh at. Maybe they’re all still true to some degree, and we have to exorcise the pain of everyday slights and slags by embarking on these fantasies that offer the perfect riposte. They make us feel better, and remedy old wounds, even when they’re just silly goofball scenarios.
Besides, McCarthy does goofball better than anyone right now. Coupled with Maya Rudolph’s smart brand of slapstick, Life of the Party is the little escape you were looking for, with a few well-placed slaps from some of the best boobs in the business.
THE EX-PRESS, May 11, 2018