By: Steve Pulaski
After seeing the much-maligned remake of Ghostbusters, I expressed some confidence that Melissa McCarthy would be best suited for PG-13 material. Unlike her characters in the lukewarm Identity Thief and the dreadful Tammy, McCarthy wasn't reliant on constant use of foul language and her being a part of a larger ensemble (including Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones) showed capabilities that stretched beyond the lowest common denominator of entertainment. With Life of the Party, however, McCarthy is back to her usual, lame routine, and hits an all-time low in what is destined to be one of the worst films of this year.
The film is another directorial fail from Ben Falcone, McCarthy's husband, who ostensibly loves to place his wife front and center in embarrassing situations in hopes of achieving comic success; he did the same with Tammy, which wasn't the least bit successful either. Falcone and McCarthy co-wrote the film's screenplay, which is rife with subplots that aren't meaningfully developed into a story that can reasonably sustain 105 minutes. Consequently, the film is a desperately unfunny series of episodic sketch-comedy that points and laughs at McCarthy's hopelessly inept social skills while pretending to speak volumes about female empowerment all the way through.
McCarthy plays Deanna Miles, who drops her daughter, Maddie (Molly Gordon), off for college in the opening scene only to get back in the car and hear from her husband, Dan (Matt Walsh), that he wants a divorce. He says he's been seeing their real estate agent (Julie Bowden) and that it's time the two cut ties after two decades of marriage. After setting his belongings ablaze in the driveway, Deanna decides to go back to college and get her archaeology degree, something she couldn't do after getting pregnant with Maddie. She rooms with a mysterious goth girl (Heidi Gardner), attempts to form connections with Maddie's sorority sisters, and pass her classes all in hopes of accomplishing something for herself in lieu of this pitiful situation.
Parents horsing around with college kids or elbowing their way into the lives of their teenagers is a formula that the comedy genre has been exploiting for sometime now. Even excluding the Rodney Dangerfield film Back to School, which this film obviously recalls, Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne got to take part in the film twice with both Neighbors and its sequel, Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler had a crazy idea and ran with it in The House, and most recently, John Cena, Leslie Mann, and Ike Barinholtz exhausted themselves chasing after their children in Blockers. This fact alone should've motivated Falcone and McCarthy to try a little harder in their screenplay. Saturation is rarely a good thing, and when most of the aforementioned films were notably weak in their attempts to bring life to a goofy premise, it already puts Life of the Party in an awkward spot. Faced with this opportunity, Falcone and McCarthy decide to assemble a long-winded film of hot air, loose gags, and significant dry-spots where humor is entirely absent from the story. It's not enough that a comedy be unfunny but in a fashion that totally disregards conventional rules of plot and structure. Not only does it seldom make you laugh, it never gives you a reason to sympathize with Deanna.
Why should I be burdened to care about an evidently wealthy mother who returns to college in hopes to finish her degree only to waste several opportunities by going to parties, immaturely conducting herself, and foolishly letting her daughter make decisions for her? Why should I feel even the slightest bit of remorse for Maddie, who is often mortified by her mother's actions — including hooking up with a guy half her age — when she's her main instigator? These are questions I'm incapable of answering, and so are Falcone and McCarthy. On that note, they include more scenes of debauchery and hope we don't focus too hard on details that exist below the surface.
The one benefit that films like Blockers and Neighbors had, even if their end results were decidedly mixed, were that they could accurately depict the level of coarse language and hormones that run rampant on high school/university campuses across the country. The R-rating served their premises well. Life of the Party, however, is PG-13, and by all accounts restrained by its premise's practically inherent cry to be taken further and its writers' determination to subdue it along with any potential for it to breakout. This is what leads to cringe-inducing scenes involving Deanna referring to her vagina as her "VGoogle" (in a punchline that stupidly mistakes Google for Siri), her incessant need to make several scenes run long because she cannot shut up, and quite possibly one of the worst dance-offs I've ever seen in a film.
Life of the Party's most offensive bit is its hamfisted inclusions of social and political issues that women face while the product itself grossly generalizes all of its female characters. Consider a needless bit where Deanna is taking shots with her daughter, and instead of yelling the vague phrase "full velocity" as she toasts her glass, she belts out a plea for "equal pay for equal work." Then there's Debby Ryan's "mean girl," one of the softest and artificial villains in any film this year, and her presence is a faint whimper that serves as a condemnation of women being mean or derogatory to other women. One cannot argue the need for the kind of versatile roles for women that compare to their male counterparts, and one would be hard-pressed to make a compelling argument against these very issues. But as is the case with I Feel Pretty, just because a film is conscious enough to raise these issues doesn't mean they automatically deserve praise with the way they approach them being entirely disregarded. Life of the Party uses these talking points as asides that lose their value not only because of their placement in the narrative but when you consider all of Maddie's sorority sisters are glaring stereotypes. Not to mention, Deanna alone is an ugly caricature of a woman experiencing a crippling midlife crisis.
Later this year, Melissa McCarthy will star in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which will mark her debut as the lead in a dramatic role. I can only hope that she succeeds and adopts that path down the line for her cinematic ventures because I don't know if I'll be able to take another failed star-vehicle for the actress, who at this point, is losing credibility for the crowd that claims every comedy in which she stars simply fails to utilize her strengths competently.