By Kim Hughes
By coincidence, the night after enduring Life of the Party — the irredeemable new Melissa McCarthy comedy, which she co-wrote with director and husband Ben Falcone — I happened upon an observation by Pauline Kael, the famous/infamous American film critic. Kael was vigorously defending the 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde. Of it, she argued, “[The audience is] made to feel but not told how to feel.”
It occurred to me that audiences viewing Life of the Party get exactly the opposite: aggressive emotional manipulation in the service of what might be the lamest, most predictable, rehashed story ever told.
Left to our own devices, we’d be numb with disbelief and never stay to the end without a cash incentive. We know where we’re headed almost immediately. Any hope that snappy dialog or head-spinning twists will redeem this train wreck is extinguished when the first ugly sweater joke — already an eye-roller in Bridget Jones’ era — is marched down the gangplank.
Less a movie than a series of set-ups for McCarthy’s broad physical comedy and rotating portfolio of looks (which include but are not limited to sloppy, dowdy, sassy, costumed and hot), Life of the Party doesn’t even pretend to care about character development. For example, the most notable feature among a roster of undercooked sidekicks is young woman who spent eight years in a coma. As in, not conscious. Is that a thigh-slapper or what? Barbies are more dimensional.
The plot has potential… in some universe. Heart-of-gold Deanna (McCarthy) gets dumped by husband Dan (Matt Walsh) the moment daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon) is safely tucked away at college. Dan is a hipster wannabe doing the horizontal shuffle with snobbish real estate agent Marcie (Julie Bowen conjuring Christine Baranski). Angry and untethered, Deanna decides to go back to college, perchance to reclaim a long-forgotten dream. Alas, Deanna selects the same college where Maddie attends with a coterie of friends for whom Gloria Steinem is… um…like, a YouTube star?
Maddie’s justifiable horror at such a development dissolves almost instantly because, well, because Deanna — though smothering and worryingly tactile — is just such an aw-shucks ball of delight. That she teaches her universally dim-witted sorority sisters self-respect while shamelessly and publicly banging a doe-eyed young buck her daughter’s age seems beside the point.
Let’s recap: Dan is a pig because he left his matronly wife after two decades of marriage for a foxy, age-appropriate real estate agent, and Deanna is a superstar for poking a seriously impressionable and hopelessly smitten college student who should be Maddie’s boyfriend and is actually the son of someone in her immediate orbit. Riiight.
The movie’s point is virtually unfathomable, and not even its winning bits of slapstick can distract from that fact. Deanna’s hard-won self-determination might be a theme but it’s undercut by the character’s eagerness to embrace clichés. Good-hearted people succeed while meanies get their comeuppance? Love is all that matters? Sassy friends are nice to have? (Enter a drab Maya Rudolph who never gets the slick makeover that is her BFF’s calling card).
Really, guys, this is the story you longed to tell? Suddenly, 2014's Tammy and 2016's The Boss — also helmed by McCarthy and Falcone — seem worthy of the staggering 7,000 words Kael harvested for Bonnie and Clyde eons ago in The New Yorker.
Paradoxically, McCarthy is weirdly, undeniably captivating even as the movie crumbles around her. Which somehow makes Life of the Party worse than bad: there’s no joy in watching it, and none even in hating it.
Life of the Party. Written by Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone, directed by Ben Falcone. Starring Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, Matt Walsh, Jacki Weaver, and Julie Bowen. Opens wide May 11.