It’s apt that Melissa McCarthy’s new comedy, “Life of the Party,” opened Thursday night, on Fred Astaire’s birthday, because McCarthy has the Fred Astaire problem, a virtuoso’s self-inflicted dilemma born of power and prominence. Astaire famously said, “Either the camera will dance, or I will”; at the height of his fame, he was given control of the direction of his dances and exercised that power in a way that, he believed, optimally showcased his artistry rather than that of the director. The result was that, despite Astaire’s great dancing, those scenes (enjoying a grotesquely inflated reputation) are, for the most part, boring, and the films that go with them aren’t any better. McCarthy, similarly, is her own producer, and in “Life of the Party”—as in “The Boss” and “Tammy”—she has chosen to work with the director Ben Falcone (her husband), whose mild and uninflected work showcases McCarthy with a bland neutrality.
These sentimentalized and bowdlerized comedies stifle McCarthy’s improvisational imagination to the point of unrecognizability; the best material may have been left not even on the cutting-room hard drive but in a temporarily closed door of her comedic mind. The setup of “Life of the Party” is an old one—it was used by Rodney Dangerfield in “Back to School” (1986), by Bing Crosby in “High Time” (1960), and by the Marx brothers in “Horse Feathers” (1932). McCarthy (who wrote the story with Falcone) plays Deanna Miles, a fortysomething mother in Georgia, whose husband, Dan (Matt Walsh), declares—moments after they drop off their daughter, Maddie (Molly Gordon), for her senior year at Decatur University—that he is seeing another woman and wants a divorce. (He also, with a calm cruelty, sells their house out from under Deanna, asserting that it’s solely in his name.)
Suddenly, a long-ago life choice surges to the fore: Deanna and Dan met as students at Decatur, but, when Deanna became pregnant with their child, before senior year, she dropped out of school, while Dan completed his degree. Now, financially dependent on her soon-to-be ex and without a career, she decides, on the spur of the moment, to go back to Decatur for her own senior year—and involves herself in Maddie’s social life in the process. Deanna shows up as the embarrassingly uncool rah-rah mom who tries to get down with the lingo. Maddie is unhappy having her around, but Maddie’s friends, who adore Deanna, have no such