If you’ve ever wondered about how much of a difference a director can make, look no further than Paul Feig. The man who directed Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy showcases the actress’ talents like no one else has been able to, giving her free rein to bring the funny. McCarthy’s own husband, on the other hand, seems to have a much harder time of it. Ben Falcone has directed his wife in Tammy, The Boss, and now Life of the Party—all three of which might make you question why McCarthy is even a star in the first place.
In Party, McCarthy stars as Deanna Miles, a doting mom dropping off her daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon) at Decatur University, Deanna’s almost-alma mater. As she and her husband Dan (Matt Walsh) drive off, he casually tells her he wants a divorce; he’s in love with his realtor Marcie (Julie Bowen). Deanna tail-spins before deciding her only real option is to go back to school and finish her degree; she had dropped out a few credits shy, after becoming pregnant with Maddie.
Deanna jumps right back into college life, decking herself out in sparkly Decatur mom sweaters and hangin’ as best she can with the cool kids—including Maddie, who tries in vain to establish some boundaries. Of course, college life wouldn’t be complete without hooking up a frat party, and Deanna hops on that bandwagon, too, meeting young Jack (Luke Benward), the best friend of Maddie’s boyfriend—giving mother and daughter a chance to share a Walk of Shame together.
Life of the Party may share a similar plot as Rodney Dangerfield’s raucous 1986 comedy Back to School, but that’s about as far as it goes. Despite McCarthy’s presence, Party is a constantly deflating balloon; the longer it drags on the more it feels like a wasted opportunity. McCarthy tries so hard to keep this thing afloat that you can almost see the veins popping in her forehead, but not even her outstanding talents are enough to save it.
The script, which McCarthy herself co-wrote with Falcone, has plenty of funny moments in it, so the fault isn’t necessarily with the material. And the cast is top-notch, too. Maya Rudolph steals every single one of her scenes as Deanna’s living-vicariously best friend Christine. And Gillian Jacobs and Heidi Gardner do great work also. But too many other moments, including most of the scenes with the hilarious Chris Parnell as Deanna’s archaeology professor, never seem to get out of first gear.
Falcone just doesn’t seem to want to let McCarthy loose to do what she does best. Maybe he’s a proponent of the whole “less is more” strategy, but here it simply doesn’t work. McCarthy is at her best when she can just let her funny flag fly, and in Life of the Party that flag’s been lowered to half-mast.