After dropping her daughter off at college, middle-aged mother Deanna Miles is unceremoniously told by husband Dan that he wants a divorce. Distraught and looking for a change, Deanna decides to re-enroll at university to get the degree she never finished due to her pregnancy with daughter, Maddie. Much to Maddie’s dismay, this happens to be the very same college she is attending.
My main criticism for Life of the Party is that it is unsure of what it wants to be, from its story to the presentation of our main character Deanna. It is either a character based comedy around a middle-aged Midwestern mother who is going to the same school as her daughter, or a heartfelt comedy about a recent divorcee trying to relive the experiences that she never got due to an overbearing husband and parental responsibilities.
This can be seen through Melissa McCarthy’s somewhat dichotomous portrayal of Deanna, as she is both the embarrassing mum type to her daughter’s straight person and the straight person to all the other wacky characters. Maybe this is all about Deanna’s growth as a character, but we start the film with an SNL character, someone with the vaguest resemblance to a real person but one that would be right at home as a minor character in some other college-based comedy. As the film goes on she slowly becomes more of a real person, but occasionally the original character comes back to undercut the emotional core of the film.
The cooky character feels unnecessary and is only in there for the cheap laughs that come from the initial cringe factor of having to party with your mum. Even then the laughs are few and far between thanks to how incredibly awkward Deanna is in every situation. Melissa McCarthy is a highly talented actress with the comedic and dramatic chops to do a great tragi-comedy, like last weeks release Tully. But instead we get an extended sequence where Deanna and her daughter discuss Deanna’s one night stand with a college senior.
The script and her performance are pulling the film in two different directions. The sincere dramatic performances of a lady coming to terms with herself as a recent divorcee compromising the bawdy tone that comes with having a conservative mother engage in campus debauchery, and the quirky comedic character compromising the emotional sincerity that such a story might have held.
The film lacks anything for our characters to overcome; there are no real stakes to the film that drive the story forward, it just feels like a series of improvised viniettes that have no bearing on each other. The problem is there is ample material for the film to explore, namely Deanna’s lack of confidence in herself, shown during her inability to complete an oral presentation, small stakes I know but this sort of film doesn’t need anything more. However, this arch only lasts two scenes, one where Deanna can’t do it and the other one when she can. There was no building through the film toward that confidence, she does not struggle against anything: bullies, she is too old to care and they sort of just stop after a while; money, she is cut off, but Christina Aguilera shows up to help thanks to the greatest of coincidences.
There are some funny moments and characters, Maya Rudolph, of Bridesmaids fame, as Deanna’s best friend Christine and Community’s Gillian Jacobs as Deanna’s sorority sister, Helen, are both incredibly entertaining performances and suitably off the wall for McCarthy to react too. These laughs happen seemingly outside the story though. For instance, when the reveal that Deanna’s college fling, Jake is the son of the woman her ex-husband is marrying, the outburst from Christine is cathartically hilarious, as she is saying exactly what the audience wants to say. Similarly, there is a gag after Deanna has sex with Jake in a library, where to entice husband Frank, Christine shows off her fuzzy socks.
But despite these decent momentary laughs, the best thing that you can say about Life of the Party is that it would make for several decent sketches. As a whole movie, it was mostly unfunny, tonally confused and lacking any memorable moments. This is thanks to a story with a lack of stakes, characters that you cannot truly connect to and a central performance that wastes the talents of our lead actress.
You can watch Life of the Party in cinemas now