I’ll say it – I’m not the biggest fan of Melissa McCarthy. Though I like her physicality and fearlessness, for me, she can come off as stubbornly obnoxious and loud, which can become grating, especially when she forces her brand to extreme heights. What helps keep everything balanced is a good supporting cast. When everyone around her is just like her, things can go off the rails real quick; when they are the complete opposite, or more subtle and subdued, it allows the audience a chance to breathe every once in a while. It’s sometimes easy to see which category the cast will fall based on the trailer, but other times, it’s not so clear, so I always keep my hopes on the lower end of the spectrum whenever going into one of her films. Luckily, McCarthy chose to tone everything around her down in Life of the Party, her newest team-up with director/husband Ben Falcone, making what could have been an insufferable noise fest into a sweet, funny slice-of-life comedy.
McCarthy plays her typical self here as Deanna, a doting mom without much of a filter or the wherewithal to ever turn her mouth off. Her thoughts just spew from her lips like projectile word vomit, nary allowing anyone to get a word in edgewise. After dropping her daughter, Maddie (Molly Gordon), off at college for the final time, a bomb is dropped that does finally leave her (mostly) speechless — her tired, worn husband (Matt Walsh) wants a divorce. This news sends Deanna into a bit of a spiral that’s showcased through the usual amount of tears, burning her old life away and parents (Stephen Root and Jackie Weaver) who are ready to shoot the cheater (or make her a sandwich). What’s she to do now? It’s obvious — go back to college and earn her degree.
The setup is a typical story trope, but what McCarthy and Falcone are able to do with it allows for an odd sense of honesty to rise up among the saccharine nonsense. There’s a scene in the middle of the film in which Deanna goes to a party with Maddie and her friends. She’s given a shot of liquor, which at first goes down hard and burns, but the more shots she does, the easier it is to swallow. That description sums up the film quite well — it starts out a little irritating, but as the movie progresses, we fall into a charming pocket or warmth. McCarthy never comes across as forced; she feels natural playing off these young kids.
Speaking of which — in the past couple of decades, a lot of comedies have gone down the route of filling their supporting casts with characters that inhabit “funny” idiosyncrasies. This is fine, however, for the most part, these quirks are so cartoonish or over-the-top, they come off as unfunny caricatures rather than real people who have a different vision of life than you. That doesn’t happen here. All of Maddie’s friends (including Gillian Jacobs, Adria Arjona and Jessie Ennis) that instantly bond with Deanna do have unique traits, but McCarthy and Falcone make sure to keep these quirks subtle, never pushing them to their limits, which allow the audience to understand them and relate to them in different ways.
This pulling back on the over-abundance, ironically, is what helps establish the laughs. Everything that happens feels like a natural progression rather than comedy for the sake of comedy. What’s even more surprising is how the duo are able to create a fun, interesting film without having hardly any stakes whatsoever. Other than the cheating husband, his real-estate mistress (Julie Bowen), and the typical mean girl (Debby Ryan) who’s mean for no other reason than because it’s a school comedy, so there needs to be a bully, there are no “bad” people or villains in the film. And I hesitate to call these characters bad, as they’re simply trying to figure out their own lives. There aren’t any major comeuppances except for a scene of massive destruction that actually makes Deanna look worse than the person she’s trying to get back at.
There are no real repercussions either, but in a film like this, there doesn’t necessarily have to be. In its own absurd way, Life of the Party is a mid-life crisis fantasy, and everything that happens doesn’t have to feel based in reality, so long as the characters sell it as reality. And though McCarthy and Falcone fail to provide any of the supporting cast any personal arcs of their own, they are still able to compliment McCarthy’s antics and keep even the most outlandish plot points, including Deanna dating a twenty-two year-old student (Luke Benward) or the surprise cameo appearance by a superstar singer, from becoming overtly cringe-worthy. There’s also a familiar revelation that plays beautifully because it fits within the confines of what McCarthy and Falcone are going for — a harmless piece of entertainment that’s meant to delight its audience.
This is the second comedy in two weeks that I went into without much hope for anything, but came out surprised. The first was the remake of the Kurt Russell/Goldie Hawn classic Overboard, which I thought was going to be a disaster, but ended up being a decent film with some good performances. Life of the Party turned out even better than that, as though some of the performances still did grate on me a little (I’m still not sure of the appeal behind Maya Rudolph, but to each their own), there were still some very strong laughs and an overall sense of community, wherein hanging with this group of gals is certainly something I wouldn’t mind doing all over again.
My Grade: A-
There isn’t much substance to Breaking In, a home invasion thriller that tries to be tense, dark and mysterious but doesn’t accomplish any of those things because we never truly know who any of the characters are, where they came from, or why we should care if anything happens to them. B-
Next week, new movies include Deadpool 2, Show Dogs and Book Club. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.