Too inoffensive to harbour any strong feelings towards, Life of the Party is a nonetheless shockingly haphazard waste of talent.
Note: this review originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone are both alumnus of The Groundlings, a highly respected, arguably legendary, Los Angeles-based sketch and improv comedy troupe/school. A quick scan of their alumni page will reveal that a veritable who’s-who of comedic royalty over the decades has also come up through there, but I bring up McCarthy and Falcone’s statuses here because it really helps explain how their work so far turned out the way it has. The duo, married, have made three movies together up to now with Falcone directing and the pair both scripting – 2014’s Tammy, 2016’s The Boss, and now Life of the Party – and whilst I would hesitate to call any of them outright bad, they all share similar flaws that point to their Groundlings background.
Improv and sketch comedy, after all, is built on a foundation of containment. They’re ideas and characters that live in specific scenarios that only need to make sense and be thought-through enough to last, maybe, five minutes tops. Characters are whatever a scene needs for them to be, events and incidents are sprung without warning because the nature of the formats allows us to skip the set-up, connective tissue, building blocks, etc., and there’s no need for lasting consequences because they don’t run long enough and recurring characters just go back to the status quo the next time they’re trotted out. You want to try constructing a feature-length narrative film around an improv creation or recurring sketch character? Good luck with that. Yeah, occasionally you might luck into a Blues Brothers, or a Wayne’s World, or a MacGruber, but those are the once-a-decade exceptions.
Technically, only The Boss is an adaptation of a Groundlings creation, but each of McCarthy and Falcone’s films up to now have demonstrated that same inability to put together serviceable narratives, fully-rounded characters, any semblance of pacing, or really any of the things that make up great (or even objectively good) comedies. Tammy at least had the novelty of being a genuinely sweet movie that aimed to find jokes without having to go mean or punch down – something that, as time has gone on, turned out to be the other identifying feature of a McCarthy/Falcone comedy – The Boss had a few decent sequences and went bonkers near its final stretch, but Life of the Party doesn’t have anything to offset just how haphazard it is. Honestly, it really only qualifies as a narrative film in the technical sense of it having been recorded on cameras and released into cinema screens for mass consumption.
See, even by the extremely low standards of their past films, Life of the Party is super-thinly conceived. There is a premise – in which McCarthy’s Deanna is divorced out of the blue by her asshole husband Dan (Matt Walsh) and decides to use the clean break as an opportunity to go back to university and finish her degree, which Dan initially pressured her to drop out of when he got her pregnant with her now-Senior Year daughter, Maddy (Molly Gordon), who, wouldn’t you know it, goes to the same uni that Deanna re-enrols in – but not so much a plot. It’s more like a framework for a season of sitcom television, a heavily condensed version of which is what Party also most resembles, and since there’s no real through-line (thematic or narratively), that just leaves McCarthy and Falcone to cycle through a whole collection of stock subplots to fill time. There’s the party scene, the makeover, Deanna hooking up with a typically-college-aged boy, the themed-party scene, fraternity inductions, oral presentations, inexplicably a pair of mean girls who appear to have been imported over from a lesser 90s High School movie, Dan still hanging around the edges with his new squeeze, the climactic party to raise needed funds, and more that come up, have between five and ten minutes spent on them before we move on to something else.
At this point, you might be expecting me to say something like “this would be at least understandable were the film instead a television show or recurring series of sketches,” but that’s honestly not true, either, because there’s no meat on the bones here. Deanna is the thinnest possible sketch of a character, a plucky and excitable if somewhat overly-forward super-nice mom, lacking in the kinds of specificity that McCarthy normally imbues her characters with to make them pop. Deanna’s a bit of a square, she mostly wears tacky mom clothes, one time shares an embarrassing story about her daughter to her daughter’s friends… That’s about it, really. That same lack of specificity extends to the rest of the cast too: the daughter is a loving daughter, her archaeology teacher is a dorky archaeology teacher, one of the daughter’s friends feels the need to ask if she can say something before speaking every time in spite of not needing to, that sort of thing. Even the quirkier characters quickly reveal to lack depth beyond their one quirk: Gillian Jacobs plays a slacker student who was in a coma for eight years (nothing really comes of it), Heidi Gardner is Deanna’s weird shut-in asocial roommate (same), and Maya Rudolph just yells throughout her scenes. A lot.
The characters, then, fail to leave a lasting impression beyond the actor or (mostly) actress they’re played by. And if you’re looking for narrative satisfaction, then you can forget about being welcome here. Life of the Party’s extremely frequent tendency to bring up narrative beats or character arc touchstones roughly 30 seconds before they become necessary to or, worse, are immediately resolved by the plot is not specifically endemic to this particular film, it’s become a depressingly recurring aspect of American Comedies in recent years, but I haven’t seen a film be this blatant about it in a long while. A potential late-film confrontation between Deanna and her daughter over the former’s decision to crash Dan’s wedding is smoothed over within seconds with no lasting consequences, no drama, and for seemingly no reason.
Jokes, meanwhile, are shockingly near-to-non-existent. At times, I pondered whether this was a genuine creative decision, particularly since it takes something close to 10 full minutes for the first exchange that resembles something in the ball park of a gag to appear. But, predominately, these are just jokes that don’t land. Sometimes it’s due to the characters being so thinly conceived that they don’t register, other times it’s from clear improv that does not magically get funnier the more times this one subject is hammered down on – especially in an early scene involving Deanna’s parents, played by Stephen Root and Jacki Weaver, that just devolves into Root yelling about sandwiches – others still come from the “narrative” refusing to ever be brought to boil, so there are never any payoffs to potentially juicy set-ups. Then there is Falcone’s direction which, even by the low low standards of modern comedic filmmaking, is an utter travesty. I seriously have not seen American filmmaking this plainly inept in staging, pacing, editing, the whole works in forever; party scenes so flat and lifeless, catfights akin to Shane McMahon punches, comedic pratfalls so totally empty of rhythm and mirth. Falcone’s previous directing jobs weren’t bastions of filmmaking to begin with, yet he is somehow regressing as a director!
But what most kills Life of the Party, more than its lack of jokes and barely-there characters and haphazard plotting and abysmal filmmaking, is that, from pretty much everybody other than McCarthy – who, goddammit, is really trying, as she does in every role – there is this faint air of collective embarrassment about the whole affair. Few actors seem willing to properly commit themselves to the material, and some even seem downright upset about having to be there; Jacobs could have been a film-stealer even with this bare-bones screenplay, but her performance sees her palpably eyeing the door at almost every opportunity. Admittedly, it’s not like Party doesn’t have things to be embarrassed about, with a finale hinging around a Christina Aguilera cameo that is treated in-universe with messianic fervour in two-thousand-and-goddamn-eighteen, but the refusal of basically everyone besides McCarthy (and maybe Gardner) to at least try and elevate the material in ways that don’t involve LOUD NOISES is poison for a film like this. I’m not saying it would have made a film this shockingly insubstantial better, but the collective refusal to engage cements its inability to get out of the starting blocks.
Yet I can’t work up enough energy to hate Life of the Party. Like Tammy (and parts of The Boss), it’s designed to be inoffensive, to aim for sweet pleasant laughs that don’t punch down or rely on meanness, which is admirable, ditto the conscious decision to immediately swing away from the expected conflict of daughter becoming mortally embarrassed by and then resentful of her mother. It means that, for all of its faults, I can’t help but lightly groove on the baseline positive vibes being projected by McCarthy and Falcone’s intentions, a tonic for other similar comedies where mean-spirited contempt flows through their DNA. However, when you take certain things out of a pre-established template, you are supposed to replace those removals with something else. Life of the Party can barely come up with one fully-realised character, let alone additional conflicts, narrative beats, and jokes. I can’t say I disliked it, despite all that, but there is absolutely no reason for anyone to pay money to watch this.