Life of the Party is a movie you’ve probably seen before. The premise of an adult going back to school has been done quite a few times. Billy Madison, Old School, High Time, Strangers With Candy, and the aptly named Back to School have all taken a swing at this concept. And there are a bunch of other flicks in this unique little sub-genre that you could mention. So, you’d think Life of the Party would spin something truly special out of its well-worn setup.
Its Heart Is in the Right Place
Let’s start off with some positives. Melissa McCarthy co-wrote this film with her husband, Ben Falcone. Falcone also directs and you get a sense of real warmth from their collaboration. The main plot involves Deanna (McCarthy) being divorced by her husband Dan (Matt Walsh) and decided to go back to college and finish her degree in archeology. There are a lot of moments of heartfelt support and empowerment for Deanna and her circle of friends. It gets a little overbearing after a point but it never comes off as cynically motivated.
Plus, there are some great standouts in the supporting cast. In all honesty, Gillian Jacobs steals the show as Helen, an older student who was in a coma for eight years. She’s delightfully weird and we learn little bits about her character as the movie progresses that actually adds to the overall plot and conflict. Another great character is Leonor (Heidi Gardner), Deanna’s goth roommate. Leonor is a touch cartoonish but ends up being a sweet little sidenote to the main cast.
And of course there are plenty of jokes that land. As with all of these improv heavy comedies, a lot of scenes riff for a long time. The law of averages states that something is going to hit and there are probably more hits than misses in Life of the Party. Though these sequences do fall victim to that lengthy improv pacing, it doesn’t sink the entire endeavor. When the movie starts getting more straightforward dramatic, that’s when things start to waver.
A Lack of Conflict
The big issue with Life of the Party is how hollow its conflict is in regards to Deanna. The first scene of the movie introduces her divorce and the very next scene proposes the idea of her returning to college. And then she’s immediately enrolled in college. There is no discussion about how she’s funding her tuition or anything. During the end of the second act, we finally learn that she’s somehow collecting money from Dan and that’s how she’s affording her education. When that gets cut off, there is some token third act drama about raising money through a party, but it feels incredibly secondary to the thrust of the film.
Because Life of the Party is purely a wish fulfillment film. Its goal is to remind middle-aged women that they can still follow their dreams while being fun and youthful. That’s an admirable goal but it gets in the way of all the potential obstacles Deanna could encounter. At first, it seems like the conflict will be between Deanna and her daughter, Maddie (Molly Gordon). Deanna enrolls in Maddie’s college during her senior year and Maddie is clearly worried about that. But, that issue gets resolved in the first act and in an incredibly passive way.
Then, there are the stereotypical “cool girls” that rag on Deanna for being old. It’s a conflict tangent that affects nothing in the overall story and feels bizarrely out of place. And by the end of the film, this subplot is wrapped up in yet another passive way. It feels like it was placed into the film out of some sense of obligation. Like, a school movie has to have the mean clique.
The one piece of struggle that could have worked for Deanna is that she has an intense fear of public speaking. We see her sweating and passing out in front of her class during an oral presentation. That could have been funny if there was any setup as to why she has that fear. We learn about it immediately before the scene starts and it’s never explored in depth again. All we get is another version of the scene at the end of the film, but her sorority sisters show up and support her — in some overly saccharine ways by cheering and telling her she’s awesome — and then the scene just ends.
It’s this utter lack of believable obstructions that sinks the film. We never believe that Deanna isn’t going to get everything she wants and with a minimal amount of visible effort. With no concern for her as a protagonist, it makes the whole movie feel like a slog towards an inevitable and unsurprising finale.
Is Life of the Party Good?
It’s inoffensive and is obviously trying to do nothing more than make its intended audience feel good, but that comes at the cost of any sense of genuine conflict or plot momentum. Some of the jokes will make you laugh but that’s about all there is to recommend from the film. With nothing else substantial in the film, Life of the Party fails to do anything exciting with its characters or its high concept premise.
Also, someone put Gillian Jacobs in a lead comedic role. Seriously, she’s a treasure.