Review: In ‘Life of the Party,’ Melissa McCarthy Goes to College

Posted May 10, 2018 6:04 p.m. EDT

With one important exception — to be discussed in a moment — the students at Decatur University are a notably bland bunch. They have no political opinions or intellectual passions, their sex lives are almost nonexistent, and their parties rarely get out of hand. At Decatur, to be “Life of the Party” (which is the instantly forgettable title of this almost equally unmemorable campus comedy) is to clear a pretty low bar.

Still, since the title refers to Melissa McCarthy — a producer and co-writer (with her husband, Ben Falcone, who directed) — there is a measure of liveliness at least. McCarthy plays Deanna, who finds herself, somewhere in her 40s, suddenly divorced and enrolled at Decatur, where her daughter, Maddie (Molly Gordon), happens to be a senior. Deanna gave up her dreams of studying archaeology to raise Maddie and endure wedlock to a guy named Dan, played by Matt Walsh.

Walsh is one of several fine comic performers without much to do. (Julie Bowen, Stephen Root and Gillian Jacobs are among the others.) Only the great Maya Rudolph, as Deanna’s best friend, manages to spike the artificially sweetened lemonade mix she is handed. But everyone seems game and eager to please, and happy to be working with McCarthy.

In feature films, she tends to play people whose inner wildness is either triumphantly unleashed (“Spy,” say) or was never leashed to begin with (see “The Heat”). Deanna is the first kind, sort of. The zaniness is pretty low-key, and what we witness is less the explosion of pent-up energy than the gentle affirmation of exuberant kindness. Maddie and her friends almost immediately accept Deanna as one of their own, a big sister whose awkward moments are easily laughed off or smoothed over. Deanna also has a mopey, gothy roommate (Heidi Gardner) and attracts a pair of mean-girl bullies.

Who aren’t really all that mean, to tell the truth. It is curious to see a comedy so timid, so reluctant to risk hurt feelings or complicated situations. “Life of the Party” may represent Hollywood’s incomprehension — or fear — of young people, whose pursuit of decency seems to be freaking out a lot of grown-ups these days.

So the kids write their term papers and throw their tame ragers, while the parents claim the right to act out. The boldest and funniest thread in “Life of the Party” has to do with Deanna’s hot-pants romance with a hunky oenophile frat boy named Jack (Luke Benward). Their relationship — which is sweet, funny and kind of hot — sets up the movie’s single moment of comic sublimity, which I will leave unspoiled.

Except to note that it works purely at the level of plot, rather than involving any jokes or physical gags. When a crucial and surprising bit of information about Jack is disclosed, the audience at my screening erupted in sustained laughter that drowned out the dialogue on-screen for almost a full minute. We probably weren’t missing much, though, since the writing and direction had been (and would continue to be) slack and scattershot. Why go back to school after all those years and settle for a gentleman’s C?

Additional Information:

‘Life of the Party’

Rated PG-13. Mom! Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.