In the school of bad movie titles, “Life of the Party” wouldn’t even make the waitlist. But it does feel a bit lazy for a movie about a middle-aged woman going back to college not to attempt some sort of school pun, given how easy it was for this reviewer to do so. (Albeit not a very good one). And while Melissa McCarthy certainly is the life of the party in everything she’s ever done, the phrase conjures up the opening lines of Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears”— a melancholic melody to associate with your blockbuster comedy. There won’t be any tracks of tears, laughter or otherwise, from “Life of the Party.” Even a rockstar cast can’t make these jokes sing, and Christina Aguilera is in this movie.
We open on a familiar scene: Parents dropping their daughter off for the first day of college of her senior year. Deanna (McCarthy) fawns over Maddie (Molly Gordon) as an impatient Dan (Matt Walsh) grumbles about tuition and honks the horn at his wife. As soon as she gets in the car, eager to enjoy the moment, he unceremoniously hits her with the news that he’s been having an affair and he wants a divorce. After crying in the bushes, she runs to her own mom and dad (Jacki Weaver and Stephen Root), who say they haven’t liked Dan since he made her drop out of college. It wasn’t that he made her, she protests, they decided together that they only had enough money for one of them to finish school once she got pregnant.
The next day, Deanna shows up at Maddie’s sorority to bring her some extra shampoo and spring the news that her parents are getting divorced and her mom is now going to college algonside her. It’s a lot to process, but the movie has to get going. (“I overwhelmed my gal,” Deanna says, in the movie’s first chuckle line). She soon meets Maddie’s friends, a group of model-pretty “misfits” and a redhead who don’t have personalities so much as one running joke to distinguish them. The most fleshed out of these characters is Helen (Gillian Jacobs), who apparently looks too old to be in college (she doesn’t), because she was in a coma for eight years, a medical miracle that somehow earned her 3 million Twitter followers.
The girls decide Deanna needs a nickname and a makeover, dubbing her DeDe and straightening out the tight curls she sets every night. After shedding her sparkly sweater, glasses, and bob, her “She’s All That” makeover is complete and she promptly ensnares a hunky wine-loving co-ed named Jack (Luke Benward). In the movie’s most charming storyline, Jack follows her around like a puppy dog for the rest of the movie. Sure, it’s kinda funny to see her brag about fooling around “in the stacks,” but it’s really nice to see McCarthy, whose weight is so often a punchline, be fully sexual and desired without that being the joke.
The other threads don’t hang together so well: Dan and his fiancee Marci (Julie Bowen) are too cruel and their jabs are essentially as funny as schoolyard taunts, and the same goes for a mean girl in Deanna’s Archeology class. Even pinch hitter Maya Rudolph cannot squeeze blood from a stone as the best friend with little to do but sneak off to boink her husband in odd places, though she looks very funny in her Midwestern mom hair. The touching story of a stay-at-home parent who finally gets her degree is a worthy moral, but by the time Christina Aguilera shows up, it’s been lost in the noise.
“Life of the Party” is proof that even the funniest actors need good material, which makes it all the more disappointing that McCarthy wrote the script with director Ben Falcone, who is also her husband. The two previously collaborated on “Tammy” (2014) and “The Boss” (2016), both critical failures that turned hefty profits. “Life of the Party” will likely follow suit, but it won’t graduate with honors.
“Life of the Party” is in theaters now.