"Life of the Party" finds Melissa McCarthy playing Deanna Miles, a frumpy, forty-something housewife-turned-divorcée who gets a new lease on life when she decides to re-enroll in college alongside her daughter. Unfortunately it's also the latest on a long list of McCarthy comedies that fail to capitalize on the star's considerable talents.
What makes the film all the more frustrating is that -- like "Tammy" and "The Boss" before it -- McCarthy herself co-wrote the script, along with her husband Ben Falcone (who also directs). I admire the actress's desire to take control of how she's presented on screen, I just wish her track record was better. Her projects with Falcone feel oddly timid as showcases for McCarthy's brash sense of humor, and lack the bite of her work with director Paul Feig ("Bridesmaids," "The Heat," "Spy," and "Ghostbusters"), which has given the actress some of her best roles.
The formulaic "Life of the Party" aspires to simultaneously be a raucous college comedy but also a sweet story about a middle-aged woman learning to get her groove back. Neither thread is entirely satisfying, but what works does so because of McCarthy's immensely likable presence.
It's hard not to root for her, particularly given the film's setup. Deanna's dramatic life change comes minutes after she and her husband of 23 years, Dan (Matt Walsh), drop their daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon) off for her senior year at college. With Maddie barely out of the rearview mirror, Dan announces he's in love with another woman and demands a divorce. Oh, and he's selling their home since it's entirely in his name.
Having dropped out of college after she became pregnant, Deanna is suddenly without a husband, a home, or a career. With few options, she soon decides that the way to pick herself up is returning to school to finish her archeology degree. The only slight hitch is that her former university just happens to be the same one her daughter is currently attending.
To the film's credit, it wastes little time with Maddie being angry with her mother for cramping her style. There's a bit of that, of course, but after her friends are instantly won over by Deanna's infectious enthusiasm, she quickly moves on to being a supportive daughter.
With that out of the way the stage is set for cross-generational bonding, and the film's most heartfelt message is about what women can accomplish when they stick together. Admittedly, its admirable messages about the bonds of sisterhood are undercut slightly by the script shoehorning in a pair of bullying mean girls and making Dan's new partner a cartoonish snob. But for the most part, the film aims for a tone of gentle niceness.
McCarthy is never less than committed, and she's entirely believable as a woman enjoying her newfound freedom while learning to reconcile it with her already-formed identity as a loving mother.
I also appreciated that when Deanna hooks up with hunky frat boy Jack (Luke Benward) who becomes infatuated with her, the film doesn't treat his attraction to her as a joke. Though I couldn't help wondering how that plotline would play if the characters' genders were reversed.
McCarthy's gift for physical comedy is also on full display, most memorably in an overly long sequence where Deanna's fear of public speaking manifests disastrously during a class presentation. Her sweaty fumblings are amusing at first, though don't entirely square with the confidence with which she busts some '80s dance moves during a kegger, or when giving inspirational pep talks to her daughter's friends and sorority sisters. Character inconsistency ends up being a recurring problem here.
A few members of the supporting cast stand out. Gillian Jacobs brings a wonderfully oddball energy as a friend of Maddie's whose own slight age difference from her peers is due to her re-entering college life after emerging from an eight-year coma. McCarthy's pal Maya Rudolph is expectedly hilarious, but underutilized in a supporting role as Deanna's best friend who's around mostly to cheer her on. The character of Deanna's goth roommate Leonor (Heidi Gardner) is slightly less successful, and Jacki Weaver and Stephen Root are completely wasted in small roles as Deanna's high-strung parents.
There's an appealing sweetness to the film's brand of wish-fulfilment comedy, and McCarthy is always a joy to watch. But as good as she is, we're not seeing the actress really stretch herself, and her efforts are undercut by some shapeless direction and rambling tone. With little comedic momentum to sustain it, "Life of the Party" poops out early and never manages to rally back.