It’s a weird sensation to watch a performer continually take part in ventures that come up short of maximizing their full capabilities.
The thought went through my head about midway through Life of the Party, the newest cinematic effort from comedian Melissa McCarthy. The film opened last weekend and received a lukewarm reception from audiences. While it grossed a seemingly decent $17.8 million over Mother’s Day weekend, it actually was McCarthy’s lowest headlining wide-release opening weekend haul since she rocketed into mainstream moviegoers’ consciousness with Bridesmaids back in 2011.
Life of the Party follows McCarthy’s Deanna, a middle-aged woman who has, for two decades, placed her own ambitions and career goals on the sidelines and poured her life into her husband and daughter. She’s blindsided when her husband unceremoniously dumps her for another woman and announces he’s also selling their family home. Deanna decides it’s time to put her life back on track, so she enrolls in college in hopes of finishing her pursuit of an archaeology degree she abandoned years ago. Oh, and the college where she enrolls just happens to be the same one at which her daughter is a senior and a sorority member. Hilarity — or, in this case, polite chuckling — ensues.
Yep, it’s an entry in the “older person goes back to college and gets into hijinks” subgenre. However, this one isn’t on the Back to School (RIP Rodney Dangerfield) or Old School upper end of the spectrum. Rather, it’s comfortably ensconced on the Necessary Roughness, The House Bunny side of the scale. Now, I’m not speaking ill of Necessary Roughness, per se. Some movies were made to be watched on Comedy Central at 3 a.m. with a can of cheddar cheese Pringles within arm’s reach. It’s one of them.
Life of the Party isn’t devoid of laughs. There’s some fun to be had here and there. Maya Rudolph shows up as Deanna’s best friend, and she’s doing some top-level Maya Rudolph-ing here. The picture’s energy goes up every time she’s on screen, almost as if she were edited in from another, more irreverent film. And there’s McCarthy herself, ever the gifted physical comic, throwing herself all over the screen a la Chris Farley in the mid-1990s.
But the film ultimately falls flat, in large part because of a script that is almost completely free of any real conflict or tension. The movie’s sorely in need of an evil school president who wants to throw Deanna and her new young friends out of the sorority house, or maybe a teacher who has an issue with older students, or some other plot device or back-to-school trope that would give McCarthy’s lead character something to push back against. Instead, the film sort of meanders from one house party to the next, putting McCarthy in one “Oh, hey, it’s a middle-aged woman doing a supposed young person thing” (eating pot brownies, doing shots, having a dance-off, sleeping with frat boys) scenario after the other.
What’s irksome about Life of the Party and some of McCarthy’s other cinematic entries in recent years, like The Boss and Tammy, is that they squander the actress’ considerable comedic talents. All three of those films are directed by her husband, Ben Falcone, by the way. Make of that what you will. (The couple has another comedy, Superintelligence, currently in pre-production, set for a December 2019 release.)
When she’s at her best, McCarthy is a generational kind of comedic star. Don’t forget, she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her work in director Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids. Her turn in Feig’s buddy cop flick The Heat was disarmingly, gasping-for-air funny at certain points. (Feig, with whom McCarthy has collaborated four times, seems to get the best out of her.) And, of course, she did God’s work in portraying press secretary Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live at the outset of Donald Trump’s presidency.
All of which makes her dalliances in high concept, low payoff, a-few-chuckles-here-and-there stuff like Life of the Party all the more puzzling.
McCarthy does have a drama called Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which is an adaptation of celebrity biographer Lee Israel’s memoirs, coming out in October, that has me quite intrigued.
In fact, you should probably just skip this Party and wait for that one.
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This news has been published by title Party Foul: McCarthy’s Latest Squanders Her Considerable Talents
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