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Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Review: Life of the Party (2018)

* * 1/2

Director: Ben Falcone
Starring: Melissa McCarthy

Life of the Party, the latest vehicle for the go for broke talents of Melissa McCarthy, is neither as well put together as the films that McCarthy has made with director Paul Feig, nor as broad and crass as her previous collaborations with Ben Falcone. There's a sweetness to the movie which many of McCarthy's other movies tend to lack until until their third acts, and it's pretty funny even though it must be said that it has a pretty simple premise - after being left by her husband, a woman decides to make over her life, starting by going back to college - and manages to do remarkably little with it. Still, McCarthy is funny and charming and sometimes that's enough.

Life of the Party opens with Deanna (McCarthy) and her husband, Dan (Matt Walsh), dropping their daughter, Maddie (Molly Gordon), off for her last year of college. Before they're even out of the driveway of Molly's sorority house, Dan announces that he wants a divorce, completely blindsiding Deanna, who had been looking forward to the trip to Italy that they're supposed to be taking, which he will now be taking with the woman he's been seeing on the side. He's also taking the house and selling it out from under her because it's in his name and she gets no say (which the movie believes he can do because it doesn't understand how divorce works). With her world upended, Deanna takes stock of things and realizes how much she regrets not finishing college and getting her degree, so she enrolls and not only joins Maddie at school, but joins her social circle as well, earning the nickname "Dee Rock" from Maddie's sorority sisters. She also hooks up with Jack (Luke Benward), a friend of Maddie's boyfriend, and gets embroiled in a rivalry with a girl who has nothing better to do than be bitchy.

The college stuff is funny enough, playing a good deal on the way that Deanna's presence complicates her dynamic with Maddie, who loves her mom but wants to have her own independent social life and ends up sacrificing that - albeit not necessarily, or not completely, by choice since her friends all readily embrace Deanna as their friend. But Life of the Party isn't merely about college hijinks, it's also about divorce hijinks, and while the former is mostly sweet, the latter is bitter as hell. Dan is the worst. I have no idea how Deanna could be surprised that he would dump her in the most dickish fashion possible because that's apparently the way that he does everything, and while the film gets a fair bit of mileage out of Deanna and her friend Christine (the always welcome Maya Rudolph) ripping on him every chance they get, it's sort of frustrating to have the film set him up to be such a cut and dried villain and then not really give him any comeuppance. There is a scene where Deanna and Maddie's friends ruin his wedding reception, but I don't think that really counts since the whole point of the scene is that Deanna ends up humiliating herself and Dan gets to be the victim.

Despite the presence of Rudolph for much of it, the divorce stuff kind of drags Life of the Party down, both because it features in several scenes that go on entirely too long and because these scenes tend to highlight two of the major problems with the film at the story level. The first is that the story is sort of shapeless and though the running time comes in at under two hours, which is something that contemporary comedies don't seem to do much anymore, it never really develops a rhythm to what it's doing and lacks focus. It doesn't feel baggy in the way that over-long comedies can, it just feels supper meandering. The other problem is that it does a terrible job at suggesting the passage of time. The film spans one school year, during which time Dan leaves Deanna, they divorce, and he remarries (that is a fast divorce, but then again Deanna apparently just gives him everything without a fight, which I'm sure saves time), and there's really never any indication of time marching forward until suddenly the year is over and Maddie and Deanna are graduating.

It's possible that those are petty complaints. I dunno; I had a good time watching the movie but even as I enjoyed it I was very aware of its flaws and of how small its ambitions are. McCarthy and Rudolph are great, as is Heidi Gardner as McCarthy's weird roommate who never leaves their dorm room and prefers to live in darkness. I'm on the fence about the performance from Gillian Jacobs, playing one of Maddie's sorority sisters, because I could never quite get a handle on what was going on with her character - at first I thought she was being sarcastic, pretending to like Deanna as a means of making fun of her, but later it seemed like her bizarre affect was sincere and a result of her backstory (she was in a coma for several years). I don't know, I didn't really get what was going on with that character and Life of the Party is the kind of movie that was made for nitpicking because it's seems so hastily thrown together and thinly conceived. But, hey, a summer without a Melissa McCarthy movie hardly feels like a summer at all at this point and Life of the Party is enjoyable in a "turn off your brain" sort of way.

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