Film Review: Life of the Party

'Mother Is a Freshman', it isn’t—then again, by the numbers, it is. Melissa McCarthy and her hubby, Ben Falcone, enter today’s seat of lower learning and give the late-blooming collegiate clichés another walk around the campus.
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Girl walks into a college, dumps all her worldly possessions in a dorm, discovers her mismatched roomie could be from another planet, toasts her arrival with box wine till the cows come home and she’s left slow-dancing with a jock named Jack Strong, has a bitchy brush with mean girls and clips a lock of hair in retaliation, enjoys hot sex in the library stacks and less likely places, goes through a paddle-stinging sorority initiation, walks the walk of shame the morning after the frathouse orgy, partakes of 14 brownies from Alice B. Toklas’ prize recipe and dances it off, gets financially strapped for tuition and is tossed by her new sorority sisters a Fund Me benefit party, which is a total bust till somebody tweets Christina Aguilera will be there, and gets enough money for her to—fade out and fast-forward—graduate.

It’s an old story and, in Life of the Party, it’s an old girl. Melissa McCarthy has again plopped herself down in a fun-froth situation and managed to mug, charm, slug and steamroll her way to the safe zone with her fans. This is the third custom-fitted comedy vehicle to roll off her assembly line, following The Boss (a female executive who, smarting from a prison stint for insider trading, tries to rebrand herself America’s new sweetheart) and Tammy (a rudely uprooted Midwesterner who seeks some saner climes and hits the open road with her boozy-floozy granny).

Neither of these was any great shakes of a comedy. Nor is Strike Three, which she has again written with her husband and director, Ben Falcone. Here, her fish-out-of-water character Deanna is a freshly dumped housewife who, faced with a lot of time on her hands, trails her daughter into Decatur University to take home a diploma herself.

Although Deanna is occasionally caught cracking a book in the library, this is no fun and never lasts for long. Someone is always interrupting her deep-thinks and luring her off to what seems to be an ongoing campus orgy, where she gets made over and made. Her big slapstick tsunami moment—fans insist!—allows her and her sorority tribe to make a complete shambles of her ex-husband’s hotel wedding reception.

McCarthy is the engine of the party, so much all over the picture that the supporting players function like stick figures that merely get her character from one calamitous situation to the next. The plot ticks by mechanically, sketch by sketch, going for easy laughs without touching the human barriers of her character—or anyone else.

There is one not-very-well-thought-out attempt to pump a little vulnerability into McCarthy’s character, and it flies in the face of the actress’ overriding persona.

It seems this woman, who has a quarter century on most of the cast, is shy about public speaking and can’t even speak in the classroom without sweating, swaying, stammering and eventually collapsing into a soggy heap. The climactic scene is of her overcoming, or at least getting a passing grade on, her communicative angst. To this limp, low-grade and unconvincing happy ending, I have two words: Sean Spicer!

Life of the Party has been used as a movie title at least eight times, and that’s enough. Mother Is a Freshman would have served the cause much better, being both title and entire movie synopsis. When Loretta Young sashayed through the halls of ivy in that role 70 years ago, life was simpler then, almost genteel. The conflict consisted of her and her then-fast-track daughter (Betty Lynn) falling for the same freckle-faced, bobbysox-idol English professor (Van Johnson). As McCarthy serves it up here, she makes the early a.m. run from the frat house with her daughter (Molly Gordon) and chats about the night’s graphic acts all the way home, a torrent of T.M.I. Get back, Loretta!

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