Few movie stars of the moment are as likable on screen as Melissa McCarthy. She has Tom Hanks’ innate niceness, John Belushi’s physicality, Robin Williams’ ability to switch from laughter to tears. As Paul Feig discovered in “Bridesmaids” and Judd Apatow learned in “This is 40,” put McCarthy in your movie for even one scene and she’ll steal it away.
Why, then, have her own movies been so bad?
A case in point is “Life of the Party,” the third film McCarthy has written with her husband, Ben Falcone, who directs her.
McCarthy plays Deanna, a housewife who, dumped by her husband of 24 years (Matt Walsh), decides to go back to college — the very same one her daughter, Maddie (Molly Gordon), attends. It’s a perfect premise for McCarthy, a near-copy of Rodney Dangerfield’s 1986 classic “Back to School,” only with a heart-of-gold female at its center rather than a male boor.
“Life of the Party” ought to afford McCarthy ample opportunity for the aforementioned laughs, tears and physical pratfalls, but those moments are scarce.
As with previous McCarthy-Falcone outings, this one suffers from vague writing and poorly-structured jokes that stretch even McCarthy’s abundant talent to the breaking point.
For starters, how does popular senior Maddie feel about her overbearing, fashion-challenged mom? Slight mortification turns instantly to loving acceptance, which is neither believable nor amenable to comedy.
Maddie’s sorority sisters include a few oddballs (Gillian Jacobs plays an older student sidelined by an eight-year coma), but mostly they’re a bunch of Hollywood hotties, a lopsided mix that prevents Deanna from fully playing either the feminist den-mother or the misfit Braveheart.
The film’s best subplot involves Deanna repeatedly sleeping with a handsome student, Jack (a very sweet Luke Benward), only to insist that it can never, ever happen again. McCarthy’s Deanna is so kind and confident in these scenes that our heart actually goes out to the guy.
It might be time, three films in (following 2016’s passable comedy “The Boss” and 2014’s best-forgotten “Tammy”), to ask whether McCarthy and her husband are really her best advocates.
“Life of the Party” is arguably their weakest effort yet, but it might have been a hit in someone else’s hands.