It’s a hard thing to pan a movie that’s so eager to please quite like Life of the Party, because writing a full-throated and profanity-filled tirade about the latest Melissa McCarthy vehicle (once again directed by her husband Ben Falcone) is, as Kurt Vonnegut once claimed, like dressing up in a suit of armor to attack a hot-fudge sundae.
I didn’t laugh once during the entire goddamn screening, and it felt about a thousand years long compared to the listed 100-minute runtime. But there’s just something so pointless about being frustrated with entertainment that just really wants you to feel fine while it unspools — not happy, not sad, not amused, just fine — that it naturally neutralizes one’s capability to be a dick about it. That said, it’s not a good movie at all, and there are much more intriguing and truthful failures out there about motherhood for you to enjoy (like Tully, for instance).
This is the part of the review where I acknowledge to you that this is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from the preview: Life of the Party is the most generic possible remake of Back to School that you’ll ever witness, right down to its title, which could describe any number of films better suited for a name like that, but happened to be affixed to this one, given the fact that it probably focus-grouped well when paired with McCarthy’s face on a poster. McCarthy plays Dee Dee, a mother with a college-aged daughter (Molly Gordon, who is given nothing to do here), who, after a divorce from her husband (Matt Walsh), decides to return to school to complete the archeology degree that she wasn’t able to finish due to her unplanned pregnancy some 20 years earlier. Of course, once on campus and after a brief period of adjustment, Dee Dee literally lets down her hair and begins to drink like a fish. She lives it up, partying and regaling her fellow middle-aged pal (an amusing Maya Rudolph) with tales of hooking up with boys in the stacks.
Anyways, the film basically revolves around whether or not she’s going to party too hard and fuck up her chances at fulfilling her dreams of becoming an archeologist, but there’s not really that much at stake here. You’ll notice I didn’t say anything about Molly Gordon’s character having an issue with any of this, and that’s because she’s literally the coolest daughter ever, one who doesn’t have any issue with her mom coming back to school with her and clinging to her like a static-covered balloon, one who only is mildly annoyed with her mom when she’s describing fucking a kid her daughter’s age in decently graphic terms. She has no arc, there’s no conflict between the two of them, and that’s a bar that even Back to School managed to clear. She’s even accepted by and large by the members of her daughter’s sorority (shouts out to Gillian Jacobs for giving a pretty dumb part — a member who’s a semi-famous coma survivor and is suitably weird as a result— her all). The minor conflicts that she does have are quickly resolved, such as a “mean girl” with a nose ring and with her ex-husband, whose wedding she ruins after feeling slighted by their decoration choices. And that’s fine! I’m cool with movies free of any conflict, like the G.O.A.T. Magic Mike XXL, but they just have to have some sort of hook.
McCarthy, as always, radiates pleasantness from the screen (it’s really difficult not to be charmed by her at any point, even if I don’t find her brand of PG-13 physical comedy particularly funny), but it’s not nearly enough to prevent Life of the Party from being a total slog. The whole enterprise feels dated, as if the script had been on ice since the start of Gulf War II and was defrosted in a hurry once Warner Bros. realized they had a gap in their spring schedule.
Sure, there are cursory nods to modern popular culture (Look, everybody! Matt Walsh made a joke about Waze!) and some of the still-breezily inoffensive themes had been altered for the current political climate, but there’s nothing new present here that couldn’t have been done better 15 years ago, back when McCarthy was second-stringing on Gilmore Girls. That staleness extends to the pop-star cameo at the end of the film, which feels completely and totally untouched as well, so much so that it’s almost an endearing throwback to a simpler time for studio comedies, when all you needed was some silly make-up and a star willing enough to push the whole thing along. At least the other McCarthy vehicles (The Boss and Identity Thief not included) had some sort of vigor to them.
Life of the Party is out today (May 11).
Featured screen grab by Hopper Stone/Warner Bros., via the Associated Press.