Melissa McCarthy is a very talented comic actress. She has a remarkable gift for physical comedy, and her improv skills can be directed toward some tightly cut gags that sell a broader storyline. She particularly excels when working with Paul Feig, as films like Spy and the Ghostbusters remake deftly show, but when she takes direction from husband and screenplay collaborator Ben Falcone, McCarthy's talents are wasted on formless star vehicles that don't serve any purpose beyond further exposing McCarthy's popular presence. We've seen this before with the boring spectacles of Tammy and The Boss, but now the third time is most certainly not the charm in Life of the Party, which is one-hundred minutes of self-indulgence and tedium, even if it's well-meaning in its intentions.
McCarthy stars as Deanna, a painfully Midwestern mother of a college senior. Deanna's life is turned upside down when her asshole husband decides to suddenly divorce her. Suffering from a crisis of how to proceed with her life, Deanne decides that she needs to go back to school to complete her unfinished degree in archaeology (…sure), going so far as to move into a dorm and ingratiating herself into her daughter's sorority, which of course leads to partying and shenanigans.
And that's about it as far as the shaky plot of this thing goes, as there isn't really any sort of consistent conflict that plagues Deanna throughout her college experience. Continuing Falcone's bizarre penchant for making films that don't acknowledge any flaws in his wife's characters, Deanna is continually portrayed as endearing for her clumsy attempts to reintegrate into youth culture, with nearly every character constantly reminding her of just how loveable she is. No character escapes being reduced to the dimensionality of an undercooked SNL bit, including McCarthy's Deanna, wasting great talent such as Gillian Jacobs, Stephen Root, Maya Rudolph, and Chris Parnell on sycophantic nods to McCarthy's apparent monolithic greatness. Even the film's petty villains – a pair of fellow female students narcissistically absorbed in their own beauty in a failed effort to age up that tired high school trope – are mean simply for the sake of being mean, not driven by any pathos or motivation beyond Deanna being… older, I guess?
The shallow characters might have been worthwhile if the film had any proper gags to hold them up, but the film is built solely around letting McCarthy spitball around basic scene set-ups and hoping the chaos that spews from her mouth will carry the film to the next scene, where the practice is repeated ad nauseam. The few scripted sequences of physical and situational comedy the film offers play like gangbusters in an ocean of half-baked improv, which sidelines every other performer in favor of placing McCarthy at the center of a virtual one-woman show that she admittedly does a good of job of pretending to carry. But the comedy suffers for the egotism or love of the subject, depending on whether you believe McCarthy or Falcone is the driving creative influence on the film.
I have a lot of respect for the fantasy Life of the Party is selling. Many women have given up dreams of education and careers to adhere to their husbands' plans for their future, and divorce as an impetus to rebuild one's life and go back to school is a relatable wish to explore, particularly for those women who aren't able to afford doing so. For those midlife crisis moms in the audience, Melissa McCarthy may just have the key to their psyches that will carry them through to the credits. But for the rest of us, Life of the Party is just another exercise in shallow hedonism.