Among Melissa McCarthy’s gifts is her ability to do sharp-edged comedy without being cruel (her Sean Spicer impression on Saturday Night Live) and to be endearing when she plays underestimated women who reveal surprising facets (Spy), but her most magical quality may be the way she can lure moviegoers to mediocre comedies, even Tammy and The Boss.
That’s the magic she’ll have to work on the bland Life of the Party, in which she plays Deanna, who returns to school alongside her college senior daughter. The film is a cream puff about a mother-daughter relationship, masquerading as a raucous return-to-campus comedy, most of it predictable.
Deanna wears a pink sweatshirt emblazoned with “Proud Mom” when she and her husband, Dan (Matt Walsh), drop their daughter off for senior year.
They aren’t out of the sorority house driveway before Dan tells Deanna he is ditching her for another woman. McCarthy’s shocked, sobbing reaction suggests how good she could be at drama.
Abandoned, Deanna decides to finish her degree. She turns up on campus excited and fully decked out in school paraphernalia, from sweatshirt to backpack, traipsing around like the ghost of college past. She is clueless - but for this first short stretch, the film does have a clue.
Maddie (a very natural Molly Gordon), like any ordinary college girl, is quietly horrified at having her bubbly mother living in a nearby dorm and dropping by her sorority with snacks.
Mean girls in class are sarcastic about Deanna’s wardrobe, mocking her to her face. One of Deanna’s new friends, Helen (Gillian Jacobs), sneakily snips off some of a mean girl’s hair. Helen, who was in a coma for eight years before returning to school, is the kind of quirky character the movie could have used more of.
Deanna herself begins to see that she’s intruding on her daughter’s life. There is an edgy honesty in these scenes of her rough landing, a sharp tone reminiscent of some of McCarthy’s best movies.
Sure enough, in no time Life of the Party becomes a gushy Deanna lovefest. She fits into college, and the film is overwhelmed by clichés.
Maddie’s sorority friends want to watch movies with Deanna and take her to their parties, unironically. At one party - and there are way too many even for a pic with this title - Maddie takes her into the ladies’ room, and in that quick trip removes her mother’s glasses, smooths out her frumpy curls and tosses away her embroidered smock.
Voila, Mom is now a woman in a black shirt who attracts and hooks up with a hot but sweet young guy. From then on, the film is a benign fairy tale of a mother-daughter friendship from a mom’s point of view.
Deanna sleeps with the college guy, but this is a careful, family-friendly PG-13 movie, so there is not a hint of a sex scene - just Deanna creeping out of his room the next morning.
There is one hilarious scene set in a restaurant, with a surprise twist that gives Deanna some unintentional sweet revenge on the woman her husband left her for (Julie Bowen). Arriving late, that scene sets in relief just how long the movie has plodded along on the strength of McCarthy’s appeal.
There hasn’t been a single big laugh, although the film is clearly going for them. Why else include an 1980s-themed dance party with McCarthy in a spangly Dynasty-worthy jumpsuit with giant gold epaulets, her hair as big as her shoulder pads?
There is a quick cameo by Christina Aguilera and a delightful, deadpan performance by Heidi Gardner (SNL) in a small role as Deanna’s roommate. As Deanna’s best off-campus friend and contemporary, Maya Rudolph puts a terrific spin on tired lines.
It’s too bad that comic masters like McCarthy and Rudolph had to do a rescue job on their roles in this disappointing muddle of a film.