The good news about Life of The Party is that’s it’s a drastic improvement in quality from the last two movies Ben Falcone has directed. Between his directorial debuted Tammy and The Boss, Falcone has not had a great (to put it gently) track record as a filmmaker, but he is showing growth as a director from film to film and that’s most profoundly felt with Life of The Party. Unfortunately, even at its best, Life of The Party can only rise to the level of serviceable, but at least the clunky dark comedy that was the modus operandi of Falcone’s prior two motion pictures has been replaced by frequently agreeable yuks revolving around an overly affectionate mother returning to college.
The mother in question is Deanne Miles (Melissa McCarthy), an archeology aficionado who is so very excited for her daughter, Maddie (Molly Gordon), who is headed off to her Senior Year of college. However, her hopeful spirit is crushed once she learns that her husband, Dan (Matt Walsh), is divorcing her and leaving her for another woman. As she tries to figure out what to do with her life, Deanne suddenly realizes that she finally has time to go back to school and complete her degree. What school did she attend? Why, the same one her daughter is currently enrolled in! Hold on to your seat folks, this mom-and-daughter duo is going to college together!
Oddly, the mother/daughter dynamic of Life of The Party doesn’t figure as prominently into the story as you might think, especially on Maddie’s end. Maddie doesn’t factor heavily into Deanne’s experiences at college while the character herself doesn’t have a whole lot going on in terms of personality or individual motivation. Her various sorority sisters (one of whom is played by Gillian Jacobs) are given way more time to develop as people which only makes it far more blatant how little Maddie gets to do here. This is an irksome quality of Life of The Party that becomes egregious once the third act is kicked off by a strained attempt to create conflict between mother and daughter that never generates much tension.
Maddie being such a thinly-sketched character is emblematic of a larger problem Life of The Party struggles with. This specific problem is that Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone’s screenplay has a bad habit of just settling for perfunctory storytelling, character and especially jokes instead of taking up opportunities to do something more fresh or even just humorously clever. Though it’s rote tendencies aren’t bad per se, they do make things bog-standard to the point that it feels like it could be mistaken for any dozen or so other comedies. It’s hard for Life of The Party to stand out when it’s primary reflex is to just be as familiar as possible.
That’s a pity because what unique qualities do reside in Life of The Party manage to provide some level of amusement. Most noticeably, Maddie’s sorority sisters are immediately enchanted with Deanee and want to be her very best friend. The interactions Deanne has with these younger ladies are frequently filled with pure kindness that’s rare to see in major American comedies while Melissa McCarthy has enjoyable chemistry with her co-stars. McCarthy herself is also a highlight of the project, she expertly channels the mannerisms and behavior of slightly overly enthusiastic kind-hearted mother’s to a charming degree, it’s a winning lead role that deserved a more consistent movie to headline.
Watching Deanne just chill with her daughter and her sorority sisters provide enough diverting entertainment for much of Life of The Party that it’s a pity that the third act tries to actually force conflict, an “All Is Lost” moment and even a ticking clock into the proceedings, none of which are able to work properly since the characters haven’t been developed enough for one to care about them being in danger. The humor of Life of The Party than its plot mechanics, but even there it’s hit or miss, with McCarthy nailing some great line deliveries while a recurring tendency for jokes to get stretched on for what seems like an eternity kills any potential comedic momentum certain jokes could have had. Obviously, Life of The Party is a flawed affair, but at least it’s much better than Tammy.