'Life of the Party' fails to pass college comedy curriculum

Rick Bentley
Tribune News Service

Melissa McCarthy is a force of comedy nature when she takes on acting roles that push her into playing an interesting character. Check out her work in "The Heat" for one of the best examples of how good she can be with the right role.

Take a look at "Life of the Party" to see how bad she can be when the role is uninspired, uninteresting and underwhelming.

A trip to take her daughter, Maddie (Molly Gordon), back to college goes sour for Deanna (McCarthy) as she's abruptly told by her husband, Dan (Matt Walsh), that he wants a divorce. He's fallen in love with Marcie (Julie Bowen), a superficial real estate agent. Deanna's response is to make the decision to join her daughter at college to finish the degree she never got because of dropping out so she could support her husband.

Maddie's initial terror is calmed when Deanna becomes the BMOC (Big Mom On Campus). Mother and daughter are dealing with classes and sex lives so smoothly all they have to do is find a way to make it to graduation and all will be right with the world.

McCarthy must have gone shopping at the film stereotype thrift store to find the character. The middle-aged woman who doesn't know how to dress, is overly enthusiastic about school spirit and shows a brave face when it comes to her husband has been used countless times in TV shows and film. It doesn't help that the character bares similarities to the work McCarthy did in "Spy" only three years ago.

The fact that Deanna is so likable even when she's too zealous for those around her eliminates any tension. There are a few attempts at some dramatic sparks, including Debby Ryan (Jessie) playing the coed who rules the campus with nasty sarcasm and a lack of respect for anyone. The effort falls flat because the campus already sides with Deanna, so there is no real power play.

Missing even more is the showdown between Deanna and her husband's new bride, Marcie. Having Bowen play a real estate agent is complete miscasting because of her work on "Modern Family." Bowen's character on the ABC comedy is married to a real estate agent played with great charm and humor by Ty Burrell. All the real estate material delivered by Bowen in "Life of the Party" comes up short because of the natural comparison to Burrell's wonderful work.

One of the problems with "Life of the Party" is it was directed by McCarthy's husband, Ben Falcone, who also co-wrote the script with McCarthy. They had the same problems they had working on "Tammy" and "The Boss." There's not an outside voice that can point out when the material and direction is languishing just below a cable TV comedy, leaving the mundane to survive.

"Life of the Party" isn't a complete magna cum blunder. Gillian Jacobs brings an energy and fun to her performance as Helen, a fellow college student who spent years in a coma. Jacobs finds the right amount of slight weirdness to playing the role without taking the character into the silliness levels.

Equally as funny is Heidi Gardner as Deanna's creepy roommate, Leonor. This is the most interesting character to hit a college campus since D-Day (Bruce McGill) rolled into Faber College for "Animal House." "Life of the Party" would have had way more life focusing on Gardner's character.

A couple of characters can't make up for how "Life of the Party" comes across so lifelessly. Recycled jokes, an overworked plot idea and a by-the-numbers performance by McCarthy earns "Life of the Party" a failing grade.

1 star
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, Gillian Jacobs, Debby Ryan, Chris Parnell.
Director: Ben Falcone.
Rated: PG-13 for sexual material, drug content.
Running time: 105 minutes.