Pro tip: When Melissa McCarthy’s husband, Ben Falcone, appears in one of her films, don’t worry about it. He has bit parts in most of her films, including the best ones. He was, for instance, the amorous air marshal in Bridesmaids, the movie that made McCarthy a star. The arrangement is actually rather endearing: He’s like the Stan Lee of the MMCU. (That’s the Melissa McCarthy Cinematic Universe for those of you unfamiliar with the lingo.)
When Falcone directs and co-writes with McCarthy, however … Well, extreme caution is advised. On the one hand, I admire McCarthy’s desire to have more control over the filmmaking process, and I love a good spousal work duo. But on the other: Tammy (24 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), The Boss (22 percent), and now, Life of the Party.
The title may be generic, but the plot is rather specific: It’s a gender-swapped updating of Rodney Dangerfield’s 1986 megahit Back to School. In that movie, Dangerfield played Thornton Melon, a variation on his groundbreaking Al Czervik from Caddyshack, another extraordinarily rich but definitionally crude and ignorant “everyman.” (No, the contemporary relevance is not lost on me.)
Like Thornton, McCarthy’s character, Deanna Miles, is a parent abruptly and unexpectedly facing divorce, whose response to this ill wind is to reenroll in college and get the degree she’d never attained. And like Thornton, Deanna’s school of choice is the same one attended by her only child. In a word: Awkward!
As with the premise, the principal difference between the movies is gender-based: Where Thornton was a crass bully, Deanna is a vulnerable sweetheart who wears ridiculously sparkled and spangled sweaters, an irresistible target for the mean girls of Decatur University, principal among them Jennifer (Debby Ryan, or Disney’s “Jessie,” for those of you with tween children). The result is a film more gentle than Back to School, but also less funny and more tonally incoherent. (These qualities were shared by Tammy and The Boss.)
When Deanna first arrives on campus, her daughter, Maddie (Molly Gordon), is suitably nonplussed. But it only takes a scene or two for Deanna to endear herself to Maddie’s friends and sorority mates (principally, Gillian Jacobs, Jessie Ennis, and Adria Arjona). Soon enough, she is the, um, “life of the party” on a regular basis, including at a “Back to the ’80s” dance shindig that seems oddly eager to advertise the movie’s borderline