Comedian Melissa McCarthy and her director/co-writer husband, Ben Falcone, have produced another vehicle for her exceptional talents as a character-based comedic star. McCarthy and Falcone's previous efforts together -- "Tammy" and "The Boss" -- underwhelmed, which may explain why "Life of the Party" finds them aiming straight for the lowest common denominator and, sadly, hitting the bull's eye.
It's easy to see the mass appeal in "Life of the Party," a variation on umpteen "back-to-school" comedies like Will Ferrell's "Old School" or, well, the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield movie "Back to School." In "Life of the Party," McCarthy plays Deanna Miles, who decides to re-enroll at "Decatur University" alongside her daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon). Deanna's been unceremoniously dumped by her cheatin' husband Dan (Matt Walsh), who has "upgraded" for a real-estate agent named Marcie (Julie Bowen). This life-changing disaster sets the stage for awkward bonding between mother and daughter, whose unplanned arrival two decades earlier prompted Deanna to drop out six units shy of her degree.
Deanna pursues her archaeology major while palling around with Maddie and her quirky sorority sisters at Theta Mu Gamma. Predictably, Maddie at first feels mortified to have her mother constantly underfoot, but soon enough, the younger Miles learns to stop worrying and just love the mom. One of the few strengths of the film resides in its female-dominated ensemble, from the sorority gals (primary among them Gillian Jacobs, her character's extra years explained by an eight-year coma) to Deanna's bff (Maya Rudolph). When not focused on tame raucousness and unnecessary nastiness, "Life of the Party" keeps its heart in the right place of sisterly love.
And yet McCarthy's latest big-screen romp proves consistently dispiriting in its blatant laziness. The characters tend to caricature (none more so than Deanna's emo-Goth-Satanist roommate), and outside of one good twist at the end of the second act, the plot proves embarrassingly trite: from Deanna's liberated hookups with sweet and strapping Jack (Luke Benward), chased by a walk of shame; to a financial strain that requires a fundraising sorority rager.
Since "Life of the Party" shows no ambition outside of crass commercialism, comedy connoisseurs should steer well clear of it. Failing that, they'll have to grasp onto the lifelines of Rudolph and McCarthy, whose comedic instincts can't be fully suppressed even by this limp storyline. As she wriggles out of Midwestern mom sweaters and into "life of the party" fun, McCarthy turns every third line into a rambling comic construction. "You just keep blabbing," Maddie laments. "Please stop, Mom."
But the rambling is the best part. Audiences that just want a fast-food, big-screen sitcom may well laugh on Pavlovian cue; Falcone certainly isn't shy about ringing the same old bell.
The best screen comedies either reveal a zany idiosyncrasy or take their laughs seriously as reflections of society and human existence. Since "Life of the Party" shows little interest in investigating the satiric possibilities of the two-decade cultural gap in play, or a weirdly one-sided May-December romance, the movie wafts into disposable irrelevance long before the credits roll.