“LIFE OF THE PARTY”
It’s possible that no one will believe this, but about an hour into “Life of the Party,” I figured out that Melissa McCarthy and her husband, Ben Falcone, wrote the screenplay and that Falcone directed it. I did this without prior knowledge or checking, not through some great flash of critical insight, but because of a family resemblance that anyone could recognize: “Life of the Party” is a little too much like “Tammy.”
“Tammy” from 2014 was a sentimental picture that turned McCarthy into a laugh-clown-laugh figure — something all comedians secretly seem to crave, and the enemy and death of all things funny. Like “Tammy,” “Life of the Party” begins with a scene in which she discovers that her husband of many years has been cheating on her, followed by an interlude of McCarthy weeping. Many scenes — and I mean many, many scenes — consist of people telling McCarthy how wonderful she is, and how much they love her, and of her saying, in response, that she thinks they’re great and loves them, too.
Are you laughing yet?
The setup here is that, following her separation, the wonderful, giving and affectionate Deanna (McCarthy) decides to finish her archaeology degree, and so she re-enrolls in her alma mater, which also happens to be the school that her daughter (Molly Gordon) attends. “Life of the Party” bypasses one possible source of comedy — mom’s relentless presence drives daughter crazy — by making Deanna a welcome addition, one instantly beloved of the daughter’s sorority sisters, who not only think Deanna’s great, but tell her. Repeatedly.
Unfortunately, there are comic limits to a character whose only note is sweetness. There’s a scene in which Deanna and her soon-to-be- ex-husband are going through arbitration as part of the divorce settlement. To the negotiating table, she brings her best friend — played by Maya Rudolph — and it says something about the skewed nature of this comedy that Rudolph is the funniest person in the scene. How strange. McCarthy is hilarious in every movie she’s in, except in the ones that she and her husband create for her.
The screenplay is also strange. It goes out of its way to avoid conflict or drama or crisis, and it fails to provide a single narrative reason to keep watching from one scene to the next. “Life of the Party” presents a situation more than a story, and in that it’s more like a sitcom than a conventional movie. It shows various things that can happen when a mother attends her daughter’s school, but you can almost take the scenes and shuffle their order, and nothing much would change.
Actually, if there is a structure, it might be this: The movie seems to be organized so that the weakest scenes come first and the funniest scenes come later. So “Life of the Party” gets better as it goes along. The movie gets mileage out of Deanna’s sexual relationship with a handsome student half her age, milking the gag in ways that are increasingly funny. And there’s one genuinely hilarious scene that takes place in a restaurant, in which all the principal characters come together in unexpected ways. Yet, not surprisingly, McCarthy is the least funny person in it.
One can imagine the argument for this. Perhaps Falcone and McCarthy think that a movie such as “Life of the Party” gives her a chance to expand her range, but where’s the expansion? Into sentimentality? Into not being funny?
The almost good news is that in “Life of the Party” they still manage, even with their best asset (McCarthy) practically neutralized, enough laughs to squeak by. But this same premise, in the hands of a different writer and director, could have been funnier.