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Rated 3.06 stars
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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
One-Note Sweetheart
by Frank Wilkins

Like the Basket Weaving 101 class offered to help fulfill those elective credits in college, Life of the Party should have been a slam dunk. Just put the funny person in funny situations, roll camera, cut, print, and go to the bank. But there’s a reason I’m not a filmmaker. And it’s the same reason I dropped Basket Weaving 101 during the first week of class: neither is quite as simple as first thought. In the case of Life of the Party, the main difficulties are its glaring absence of comedy, messy tone, paper-thin characters, lack of conflict, and totally non-existent real-world presence. With Basket Weaving 101, the culprit was mostly my ravenous appetite for sleeping in. But whereas I re-enrolled in the 11:00 am offering of that class from hell (and killed it, by the way), Life of the Party feels as though it has taken the entire semester off.

The film is another star vehicle for Melissa McCarthy with her husband, Ben Falcone, at the helm working from a script they both co-wrote. They did it before with 2014’s Tammy and again in 2016 with The Boss, but just like both of those films, this one grows stale quite quickly and has very little comedy left in the tank by the time the credits roll. What little humor there is comes mostly from McCarthy’s physical antics and a few yuks from a seasoned comedic supporting cast including Maya Rudolph. Shocking is the number of missed comedic opportunities.

McCarthy is Deanna, the mother of college-aged daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon), and wife to Dan (Matt Walsh) for the last 25 years. No sooner do they drop Molly off for her senior year of college, than Dan informs his wife that he wants a divorce so he can skirt off with a real estate agent named Marcie (Julie Bowen).

Totally blind-sided by the revelation, Deanna is left searching for the next chapter in her life that was given up on some 20-or-so years ago in favor of raising the couple’s daughter. She’s a mom’s mom with over-sized eyeglasses, baggy sweatpants, a propensity for giving smothering hugs, and a sweet disposition that would give June Cleaver a run for her money. But, of course, we know that these types of movies rely on a transformation of some sort, so we soon learn that Deanna wants to return to college to finally complete her archaeology degree. And what better place than the same college where daughter Maddie is enrolled.

Cue the uncomfortable encounters and awkward situations that are bound to face mom and daughter as the generation gap rears its ugly head, right? Well, that’s not what actually happens. And that’s another of the film’s deadly shortcomings. Instead, rather than being horrified by her Mother’s gaudy mom sweaters, cheerful disposition, and great efforts to bring “The Quad” back into common college vernacular, those very traits are endeared and celebrated by Maddie and her sorority friends. Despite efforts to have us buy in to Deanna’s unburdened acceptance into college life, we’re just not buying. There’s no conflict, no drama, and simply not enough teeth to allow us to savor the story’s truly heartfelt moments. McCarthy’s brand of humor always works better with a bit of bite and bawdiness. There is none of that here.

Then there are the characters who are as thin as the paper the script was written on. Though McCarthy is the best part the entire film -- and thankfully she’s in nearly every scene, there’s only so much comedy to be wrung from a one-note sweetheart. Built around the idea of transformation and overcoming one’s difficulties, it makes no sense that Deanna’s profound transformation is from sweet, lovable mom to sweet, lovable mom who hangs out with her daughter and friends at college. Sure, there’s the mean girl bully duo who roll their eyes at Deanna’s feeble attempts at acceptance, but neither poses enough of a threat to amount to anything.

Life of the Party knows it is broad, silly comedy, and when it stops trying to be something else, all is made much easier to swallow. There’s always room for McCarthy in these types of comedies. She is undoubtedly a funny person capable of driving a film.

Unfortunately, Life of the Party isn’t that vehicle. Much more exciting is the prospect of seeing her dramatic side in the upcoming biopic (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) about best-selling celebrity biographer Lee Israel.

(Released by Warner Bros. and rated “PG-13” for sexual material, drug content, and partying.)

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