Kernel Rating: (2.5 out of 5)
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 105 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 13+. This comedy follows a middle-aged woman as she re-enrolls in college to finish her senior year, and relies on a mixture of jokes that are either ageist or that ridicule college culture. Cursing and vulgarity; a lot of sexually themed humor and jokes; kissing and a number of sex scenes, including one where the protagonist and her daughter encounter each other in a fraternity house the morning after they each have sex; characters party, drink alcohol, and get high; a subplot about bullying; and some threatening jokes about gun ownership.
Melissa McCarthy stars in ‘Life of the Party,’ which uneasily tries to mix messages about female empowerment and body positivity with cliched jokes about aging. Supporting players like Maya Rudolph, Gillian Jacobs, and Heidi Gardner add the wackiness this movie needs.
By Roxana Hadadi
We’re used to Melissa McCarthy playing characters who are rough around the edges, whether in her breakthrough “Bridesmaids” or alongside a more straight-laced Sandra Bullock in “The Heat” or while being truly, thoroughly unlikeable in “Tammy.” “Life of the Party” veers in the opposite direction, starring McCarthy as a down-on-her-luck and underestimated 40-something who decides to go back to college after her husband unexpectedly dumps her. It’s a change of pace for McCarthy, more of a return to the kind of character she played for many years on the TV show “Gilmore Girls,” but the movie around her never quite gels.
Life seems pretty normal for Deanna (McCarthy, of “Ghostbusters”): her daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon) is beginning her final year of college at Decatur University, and she’s planning a trip to Italy with her husband of two decades, Dan (Matt Walsh, of “Keeping Up With the Joneses”). But while driving away from dropping Maddie off, Dan delivers a bombshell: He wants a divorce, he doesn’t love Deanna anymore, and he’s been having an affair with a local realtor, who is going on the trip to Italy with him instead.
Shattered by this news and by the idea that Dan wants an “upgraded wife, upgraded life,” Deanna considers a life that now seems defined by regret. The home was in Dan’s name. She was a stay-at-home mom while Maddie grew up and doesn’t have any career options. And she never graduated from Decatur University, where Maddie is also going, because when she got pregnant they decided Dan should finish college instead while Deanna dropped out.
With the realization that she can now take her life into her own hands, Deanna decides to go back to school to finish her degree in archaeology. Yes, she and Maddie will both be completing their senior years at the same time on the same campus, but that will be fine, right? And so “Life of the Party” focuses on that dynamic, with Deanna struggling with the emotional fallout of her divorce while trying to figure out who she really is, attending classes and partying and befriending Maddie’s friends in her sorority, while Maddie is stuck in the middle of her parents’ divorce and is trying to adjust to her mother’s presence in a place she previously considered her own.
McCarthy is sometimes charming as Deanna, sincere and funny, but the script—like previous ones she has worked on with her filmmaker husband, Ben Falcone, who also directs “Life of the Party”—more often than not relies on clichés rather than creativity. Some of the writing is just illogical. The character is supposed to be in her early 40s, but the movie leans hard into how ancient and clueless she is; the jokes made about her ignorance don’t make sense when Deanna isn’t actually old.
There is a subplot about bullying that is so out of place in a college setting that it’s clear it’s only included so that Deanna can provide the young woman her comeuppance. There are jokes about the ‘80s, jokes about how college kids dress, jokes about how Deanna doesn’t know how to drink alcohol or how to dress differently from a grandma but is out of control sexually while having a fling with a younger college student. The movie often in one scene presents Deanna as clueless while only a scene or so later transforming her into awesome and self-aware, but that kind of character growth isn’t actually demonstrated in the film.
The writing is too lackluster and the pace is too jarring, although there are satisfying moments like a dance-off battle and excellent supporting character turns from Maya Rudolph, who plays Deanna’s best friend and hype woman, encouraging her at every turn and taking inspiration from her newfound confidence; Gillian Jacobs, who plays one of Maddie’s sorority sisters who bonds with Deanna because she too is older than most of the other girls after spending 8 years in a coma before enrolling in college; and Heidi Gardner, whose monotonous delivery and quirky personality as Deanna’s Goth roommate are a nice counter to her persistent sunniness.
Ultimately, though, “Life of the Party” presents its message of self-improvement without much subtlety. Sometimes that works, like when Rudolph’s character is yelling to restaurant patrons about Deanna’s sexual prowess, and sometimes that doesn’t, like when Deanna collapses during a class presentation from sweating too much. There is some warmth and humor here, but “Life of the Party” is inconsistent in its delivery.
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