Jonathon Rosenbaum paid the legendary megaton bomb Sextette the ultimate backhanded compliment when he called it “the most chivalrous film ever made,” citing its willful obliviousness to the incongruous spectacle of the world’s men falling over themselves to sleep with a then-octogenarian Mae West. At the end of the day, Sextette’s makers were probably just doing what they were paid to do, and were just given an impossible task.
In the case of Life of the Party, the sense of chivalry is shared between director Ben Falcone and his co-writing partner and wife, Melissa McCarthy, who clearly set out to create a raucous comedy that’s also paradoxically the portrait of a kind gentlewoman. The result is a film whose heart is in the right place, even when every other piece feels basically out of alignment.
McCarthy, never the type of performer to tamp down her own charisma, jackhammers viewers with geniality as Deanna Miles, a suburban mother who, just as she’s dropping off her daughter, Maddie (Molly Gordon), for her senior year in college, is flatly told by her nebbish husband, Dan (Matt Walsh), that he wants a divorce. This before they’ve even pulled out of the driveway of their daughter’s sorority house. His argument about telling her so abruptly, and why he even more quickly informs her that he has a mistress, is that ripping off the bandage quickly is really supposed to be for her benefit.
In Deanna’s eyes, even stock movie villains like Dan, and, later on in Life of the Party, his blond barracuda of a girlfriend, Marcie (Julie Bowen), are there to teach her a lesson in bootstrap-tugging self-reliance. So it goes that she decides to return to college to finish off the degree that she put off at Dan’s insistence when the two got pregnant with their daughter.
Great plan, except that Deanna insists on going to the same college where Maddie is enrolled, setting up an intergenerational, interfamilial odd-couple buddy-comedy scenario that the film never makes the most of. Instead of being mortified by McCarthy’s mom jeans-clad beam of frumpy sunshine, the sorority sisters and, with only mild initial resistance, Maddie herself all welcome Deanna with curious enthusiasm. Deanna is positioned as the best-case scenario for them, a woman blooming with self-discovery who can also bake a lasagna practically blindfolded. She’s the matron saint for cool moms everywhere, not to mention new divorcees who, after tolerating wan missionary sex with their milquetoast mates, full-throatedly take in the excitement of no-strings-attached sex with much younger, stupider men.
For a little while, it’s almost a breath of fresh air that Falcone and McCarthy ignore the stalwart plotting device known as dramatic conflict, especially when it allows McCarthy the opportunity to perform extended, non-sequitur comedy showcases. In one, Deanna’s fear of speaking in front of a class, completely unmotivated by anything we know about her character up to that point, causes her to regress from sweaty-pit dread to phlegmatic panic to total, collapsing bodily rejection. But novelty and McCarthy’s comedic chops only carry Life of the Party to midterms, and it soon becomes apparent that it’s a star vehicle without any engine. Or well-rounded supporting characters, careful plotting, energetic pacing, or any of the other elements a great comedy would need to bolster its central performance.