“Life of Party,” like the recently released “Avengers: Infinity War” before it, ends up interrogating the critic who deigns to write about it. There’s nothing franchise-focused on superheroesque about the new Melissa McCarthy film, but this deeply weird and yet profoundly simple comedy is overtly content with being its own thing, even when the “own thing” that it is defies logic. And so, I left the movie wondering what we want from our comedies in 2018.
Since her stratospheric film break out with “Bridesmaids” in 2011, McCarthy has been top billed, in six comedic films (seven, if you count the shared top-billing in “The Heat”). In this short time, she’s turned into one of the most dependable and recognisable film stars, leaning into a type of character that’s usually known for their bawdiness. With the exception of her practical protagonist in “Spy”, the comedic notes of her characters have been marked by the ribald and the overt. Even the James Bond spoofing in “Spy” eventually depended on the repressed heroine breaking out of her shell. “Life of the Party” seems to shift that trope.
In the first proper scene of “Life of the Party,” McCarthy’s Deanna is dumped by her incredibly tactless husband. This out-of-nowhere divorce, telegraphed to the audience heavily for the three minutes before it happens, threatens to send her a downward spiral but that is quickly averted when Deanna decides to return to college to finish her last year. She dropped out with one year to go when she got pregnant with her daughter (played by a rather dull Molly Gordon, the cast’s only real deadweight). The film threatens the ribald. Yet, Deanna’s return to college, despite the ostensibly excitable title, is devoted to an aspect of McCarthy’s performance capabilities that is less often examined.
The film does not depend on her being ribald, or gross, or even overly sexualised (even as she engages in a sustained “affair” with a fratboy in his early 20s). Instead, even as it promises, and does make good, on the ways that protagonist Deanna becomes part of the uncouth collegiate world, the film’s overarching thesis is that Deanna is a safe, good-natured and generally amiable woman there to ensure that the young girls she befriends have a positive mom-figure to guide them through their last few months of college. It’s the first of a series of strange things in this strange movie. In the closest thing the film has to an emotional climax, Deanna encourages the girls to have confidence in themselves with comedic beats that are, technically, unearned. But you wouldn’t tell it from the audience I saw it with. Perhaps they all just needed some comedy on a dismal Thursday evening, but rather I suspected the odd, and safe comedy of the film – unusually for this sort of major studio motion picture – was something audiences were lacking and deeply enthusiastic for.
The theatre was not particularly packed. The audience was just about 30, but the last time I heard an audience respond so vocally and consistently to a comedy film was last August when I saw “Girls Trip”. “Life of the Party” is not as good a movie as “Girls Trip” nor anywhere near as revolutionary, but the enthusiastic audience who responded to every joke (except for a “Who Shot JR” reference that I think only I appreciated) was more than content with what the film had to offer. I think it’s important to recognise the way that critical takes on films are not meant to be divorced from the commercial response to a film. There are many things about “Life of the Party” that are just strange. The film does not have any coherent conflict. Each time the narrative threatens to create any real dramatic arc for her to overcome, there’s a strangely inept dramatic response that neutralises it. The film seems caught between leaning into the ridiculousness of some of its premises (there is one big reveal in the film that had the audience in stitches) and wanting to be more pleasant than offensive.
And still, the audience enjoyed the film in a rollicking way that I did not expect and that ended up charming me as much as the film. Sometimes, the experience of watching a film can improve the film. The audience response, though, seems almost ineffable. “Life of the Party” is very much an anti-movie. The film is dramatically, structurally and even visually weird. Key dramatic moments are dropped in the next scenes, the editing is occasionally insensible and there’s no real dramatic structure here. Even McCarthy’s Deanna doesn’t quite make sense – at one time she’s an introvert afraid of public speaking, in another scene she’s leading a spirited dancehall and being a sexual guru to a young adult man. Structurally and dramatically the film is like its protagonist – it does not hold up well under scrutiny but gets by on its own, loopy inoffensiveness.
And, so, “Life of the Party” gets by on its weird sort of charm. There are some key bits of its ethos that are significant, though. It’s devoted to its themes of sisterhood and female empowerment. It’s why the initial overseas opening was over the Mother’s Day weekend. When I decided to see it this week I wondered if the lack of the Mother’s Day goodwill to legitimise its existence would work against it. But I realised as I left the film with a smiling audience, comprising both men and women, that people were just happy to have something to laugh at that didn’t depend on meanness, on extravagance or the oversexualised. Instead, they seemed enthusiastic to take in something that depended on a weird sort of bathetic normalcy. It’s not great filmmaking, but clearly audiences wanted more of what “Life of the Party” had to offer.