I left the theatre after watching Life of the Party dazed and confused. As unsure as I was about what I had just seen, I was sure of one thing: I didn’t like it. Life of the Party is an unqualified mess of a movie. It lurches from scene to scene with no real consequence of anything that has happened before. It was dreadful.
The plot, so called, of Life of the Party is relatively simple. Deanna (Melissa McCarthy) discovers her husband Dan (Matt Walsh) wants a divorce mere seconds after they drop their daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon) off at her sorority for her senior year of college. Dan informs her he’s been having an affair with a realtor, Marcie (Julie Bowen). Since the house is in his name, he’s selling it as soon as possible.
So goes the opening five minutes. I might also add the first minutes are one of the few times in which something that happens that has any kind of consequence or connection to later scenes. The rest of Life of the Party deals with Deanna deciding to go back to school and get her archeology degree. A field that apparently Deanna is in love with but only talks about when she is in class. Even then, she and the professor Truzack (Chris Parnell) trade archeology puns.
McCarthy’s Deanna is a wonderful fully fleshed out creation. A ferocious ball of pure love and goodness. Deanna’s sweetness radiates from within as she barrels through one misfortune or another. I’m not exaggerating that her Deanna parallels Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp. One of the great disappointments of Life of the Party is how badly it serves McCarthy and her comedic creation.
At times, I was gobsmacked at how much Life of the Party seems to hate its main character. Ben Falcone, co-writer and director, seems to take great glee in Deanna’s misfortune. As the movie rolls along it begins to warm up to her. I couldn’t figure out if that was by design or just McCarthy’s Deanna forcing the movie to bend to her will. Perhaps this is due to McCarthy being the other co-writer. Life of the Party at times feels like a duel of sorts between two writers of varying sensibilities and cross purposes. The fact that Falcone is McCarthy’s husband only intensifies the mystery.
Then again it could be he doesn’t understand how his camera is affecting our mood. Frequently while watching Life of the Party, characters will say something and the camera will rest on them as if they said a joke. Except since no one behaves as if someone else is in the scene, it’s hard to figure out if what was said was ironic, silly, or just bad writing. I grant you it could easily be all three. Though ‘bad writing’ would imply there is something of a script, which would further imply some kind of structure. I can assure you the implications are misleading.
Take the moment in which Deanna meets Maddie’s sorority sisters. They introduce themselves one by one even though they seem to have no real distinguishing character traits. Helen (Gillian Jacobs) seems older than the others by a good ten years. Deanna asks Helen why she seems older. Helen’s reply of “I’ve been in a coma for nine years,” is mishandled both in framing and in timing. I spent the next ten or twenty minutes trying to figure out if it was a joke or not.
Life of the Party comes so close to brushing up against something resembling a joke that you become exhausted from hoping. Much of the hope comes from McCarthy’s brilliant Deanna, but also because underneath all the sloppiness Life of the Party has a great big heart. Deanna is a cheerleader of other women. The other sorority sisters, who barely have characteristics, much less names, are emboldened by Deanna’s undyingly optimistic outlook on life. She is a woman who has found out her husband has been having an affair, her home will be sold without her consent, and there is precious little she can do about it. Still, Deanna never fails to greet anyone with a smile.
Even the mean girls Jennifer (Debbie Ryan) and Trina (Yani Simone), who have consistently made fun of Deanna, eventually give way to her sunny disposition. When Jennifer and Deanna first meet in the archaeology class, Jennifer makes a snarky comment about Deanna’s clothes. Deanna’s response is a simple gasp, “Oh, we’re still doing that? We’re still attacking other girls for no real reason. Well, that’s nice to know.”
McCarthy’s Deanna bends the movie and the characters within in it, to her worldview. Disappointing because so much of it simply doesn’t work. I sat there watching the images flicker on the screen and came so close to laughing I became a little disheartened. No one likes to hate a movie, especially a movie as chock full of talent as Life of the Party.
Deanna’s best friend Christine (Mya Rudolph) is another rare bright spot. Of the three times I did laugh, two of them were scenes involving her foul-mouthed but supportive middle-class housewife. In one scene in particular, Christine and her husband Frank (Damon Jones) are at dinner with another couple and Deanna. Dan and Marcie show up and announce their wedding plans.
The scene only becomes more awkward. The waiter shows up and we see it’s Jack (Luke Benward), Deanna’s college boyfriend. In what I must admit is a hilarious twist, we also learn something else about Jack. I won’t spoil it, suffice to say if the rest of the movie was as funny as that scene I would be writing a much different review.
It should be noted that the scene is as funny as it is because it’s one of the few connected to other scenes. We have a set up for it. The people in the scene have a shared history and actually interact with each other. As opposed to the rest of the movie where one person says something mean or weird, then cut to a reaction shot. Followed by someone else saying weird or mean. Rinse and repeat.
In the interest of full disclosure, the other man in the theater with me was a man I was talking with at the bar. The bartender jokingly suggested I buy him a ticket to the show. The stranger perked up. It so happened I had an extra ticket and so we saw the movie together. With twenty minutes or so left to go, the stranger abruptly and silently stood up. He stared at the screen in deep contemplative silence. Without saying a word to me or the screen he turned and walked out.
Afterward, as I left the theater the bartender apologized to me. He hadn’t meant the stranger to take him seriously. I told him it was alright. We walked out together and there outside sitting on the bench was the drunk man who I just spent the last couple of hours with. His face was slacked and his eyes glassy. I waved goodbye to him. He waved goodbye back. A look of sadness and disappointment in his eyes.
It was a look I knew intimately. I had the same look on my face. Part of the sadness had to do with the loss of time that can never be regained. But the other part was seeing great talent spin its wheels in hopeless aimlessness. Life of the Party is a mess of good intentions and bad filmmaking.