Life of the Party July 6, 2018
1 Hr., 45 Mins.
ike fellow comedic actors Peter Sellers and Mike Myers, Melissa McCarthy believes in the power of the wig. In preparing for her exceptional vehicle Spy (2015), for instance, she often sent her director, Paul Feig, photos of her trying on “cheapies” in wig stores. “I just think wigs and makeup and costumes completely transform me when I read a character I really, really love,” she told People magazine in 2015.
Yet in her years of movie stardom, which is a pretty recent phenomenon, McCarthy has consistently proven that, the more outlandish the wig, the worse the movie. Notice that the critically maligned Identity Thief (2013), Tammy (2014), and The Boss (2016) all featured McCarthy looking ready for underwritten MADtv (1995-2009) sketches, whereas her best films, like Bridesmaids (2011), The Heat (2012), St. Vincent (2014), and, of course, Spy, avoided caricatured doing up and let the comedy arise in less visually glaring ways.
Is there a trend here? I’m inclined to think that McCarthy’s worst features probably start with the actress formatively exclaiming “take a look at this funny wig!” while collaborators scramble to parse together a comedy vehicle around it. Her best vehicles, by contrast, might prioritize strong scriptwork over the obviousness of a purportedly transformative hairpiece.
Her latest movie, Life of the Party, which she co-wrote with her husband Ben Falcone (who directs), is yet another example of the funny-costume-over-laughs tradition. Here, she plays a doting mother named Deanna who wears her hair like Shirley Temple and is partial to wearing oversized sweaters that say things like “Proud Mom.” Estelle Getty-style glasses frame blue eyeliner; she’s prone to wearing gaudy headbands and earrings that might decorate a 1980s AquaNet commercial. She’s the caricatured version of a mother you’d see in a Saturday Night Live (1975-present) skit. You know, the kind who carries around ready-made chili macaroni casseroles in her purse and has an “It’s wine o’clock somewhere!” decoration in their kitchen.
The mindset that looking funny is enough to prompt a chuckle is rampant in Life of the Party, and it’s kind of exhausting. I wish McCarthy and Falcone knew that I’m not going to laugh because supporting player Julie Bowen has been sculpted into a young Joan Rivers. And that I’m also not going to laugh at the fact that Maya Rudolph’s wine mom best friend character could durably hold the contents of a Campbell’s soup can in her curled bob.
The cartoonish characters are likely in place to cover up the fact that the storyline is so trite, even Susan Hayward would have passed on it. In the movie, Deanna’s world is rocked within the film’s first four minutes. Right after dropping her daughter, Maddie (Molly Gordon), off for her first year of college, her loser husband, Dan (Matt Walsh), asks for a divorce. Not knowing what to do with the rest of her life — she prematurely finished her academic career way back when (ironically, to marry Dan) — as she decides to press restart and go back to college. The twist is that she chooses Maddie’s. Somehow, the latter gets used to it in a matter of a few days.
The movie hits all the beats you might expect it to. Deanna gets a The Princess Diaries (2001)-esque makeover halfway through the movie and finds herself reborn as a result. She finds romance with a younger guy who should consider auditioning for a CW soap. She makes new friends, though many of them were, worrisomely, Maddie’s first. There’s even a climactic moment when, after Deanna accidentally becomes kind of a hedonist, a character operatically questions Deanna’s commitment to actually becoming a renewed woman. (This is solved about 15 seconds after the monologue wraps up.)
Yet in spite of all its familiarities, and the things I find lazy about it, the movie isn’t exactly bad. I did occasionally laugh, especially during a scene where Deanna gives an oral exam and reminds us of the time Lucy Ricardo starred in a Vitameatavegamin commercial. It’s just obvious and mundane, replete with forced gags that only sometimes work. McCarthy’s commitment, though, keeps it watchable. C+
This review also appeared in The Daily.