Life of the Party
Ben Falcone (2018)
In 1960, Bing Crosby starred in a Blake Edwards film called High Time, in which Bing plays a widower and self-made fast-food millionaire who at the age of 51 (Bing was 57 at the time so…not toomuch of a stretch) decides that it’s “high time” he pursued his dream of getting a college education, and who enrolls as a freshman in college, living in the dorms with the rest of the 18-year-olds. This idea is denigrated by his haughty grown children, but Bing eventually becomes valedictorian and also ends up romantically involved with the French professor. His classmates include the likes of Fabian and Tuesday Weld. The film was a box office flop at the time, and is little remembered nowadays except for Bing’s introduction of Oscar-nominated song, “The Second Time Around.”
Flash forward 26 years and substitute comedian Rodney Dangerfield for Bing Crosby, and you’ve got a film you are more likely to be familiar with, the Alan Meter-directed comedy Back to School, which uses essentially the same basic plot as High Time, though Dangerfield’s character made his millions in the clothing industry, and his motivation for going “back to school” is to keep his son room dropping out of college. Father and son do some quarreling, but get back together by the end. Sally Kellerman plays the love interest—this time a literature professor. Dangerfield’s classmates include Robert Downey, Jr., and the film boasts an awesome cameo by novelist Kurt Vonnegut. The film is a lot funnier than Crosby’s and probably a little more realistic, if less inspiring.
Flash forward another 32 years and substitute Melissa McCarthy for Dangerfield and you’ve essentially got the premise of McCarthy’s new film, Life of the Party, directed by and cowritten with hubby Ben Falcone. McCarthy plays Deanna, a forty-ish mother who, moments after dropping her daughter off for the senior year at Decatur University, is informed by her husband (Matt Walsh of TV’s Veep) that he wants a divorce, because he is now in love with another woman—his realtor (Julie Bowen from TV’s ModernFamily). The suddenly single Deanna decides that it’s time for a new start, and decides to return to college to complete her degree in archeology, a goal she had abandoned when she married her jerk of a husband 20-some years earlier. Her decision to go “back to school” mortifies her daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon from TV’s Animal Planet), especially since Deanna insists on dropping by her daughter’s sorority house bringing mom-treats. Turns out the sorority sisters take to Deanna as a kind of adopted mom, and any friction between Dee and Maddie fizzles pretty quickly.
So what we get in Life of the Partyis sort of the un-Dangerfield version of the parent-going-to-school-with-child theme. Dangerfield (like Crosby) plays a multi-millionaire who uses his riches to get into the university despite his lack of credentials—he just donates a building to the School of Business. Deanna has no money at all, and her attendance at school is funded by money from her ex-husband. Dangerfield and Crosby have romantic relationships with professors, and while Deanna’s archaeology prof (Chris Parnell) turns out to be a former classmate of hers from 20 years earlier, no romance springs up between them. Instead, Deanna has an affair with Jack (Luke Benward), a student less than twice her age who is obsessed with her.
Although this latter liaison serves to set up a surprising twist later on, in itself it doesn’t seem to work. Though it’s certainly possible, it’s an unlikely state of affairs and might have seemed funnier when first conceived than it turns out to be in practice. And that essentially is this movie in a nutshell. While the concept of the film, a divorced middle-aged woman going back to school, is statistically more realistic than a wealthy middle-aged businessman dropping everything to accompany his son to college, what the film portrays is actually not realistic at all. Further, the answer to the “wouldn’t it be funny if…” question that must have come up a hundred times in the writing of the script turns out, most of the time, to be “no, it wouldn’t.”
When Crosby made his movie, the notion of a nontraditional male student coming back to school was pretty unusual. Of course, the G.I. Bill had allowed many World War II veterans to enter college when they returned in the late 1940s, but those were 20-somethings for the most part not 50-somethings. By Dangerfield’s film in the mid ’80s, nontraditional students were far more common, though few would have been anything like him. Nowadays, however, nontraditional students, especially women, form a large percentage of university populations, so there’s nothing unusual at all about Deanna coming to school. And nothing unusual about her financial challenges. So any comedy that might have attached to the unusual or unexpected in her situation is just no longer there.
What is unusual is Deanna’s decision to stay in a dorm room on campus. This isn’t particularly realistic given her financial worries, but it does lead to some of the actual humor in the film, which comes in the person of her neurotic roommate Leonor (Heidi Gardner of TV’s SaturdayNightLive), who, true to her straight-outa-Edgar-Allan-Poe moniker, is pure Goth, as well as being an agoraphobe who never leaves the room, even to attend class. What’s also unrealistic but far less funny is the abuse she receives from some of the other younger women on campus. On today’s campuses, when a good quarter of the women you see are going to be nontrads of one kind or another, this is pretty lame, and smacks more of junior high school than college.
There is also a scene in which (spoiler alert, I guess, if that’s possible with this movie, which essentially has a series of vignettes rather than an actual plot per se), having had a few too many drug-laced college party treats, Deanna and her daughter’s sorority sisters pretty much destroy the venue for her ex-husband’s wedding to his realtor fiancée. I had the feeling this was supposed to be a kind of surprising and hilarious scene, given the amount of energy put into it, but for me it seemed to fall completely flat, and bordered on the pathetic rather than the hysterical.
There were a few high points in the film. In addition to Gardner as the freaky roommate, Gillian Jacobs (from TV’s Community) plays one of Maddie and Dee’s sorority sisters, but she too is a bit older than the typical freshman (she’s 30 or so) because she was in a coma for eight years. She seems pretty spaced out most of the time, but is just flaky enough to be amusing and memorable. McCarthy’s Bridesmaidsco-star Maya Rudolph turns up as Deanna’s off-campus best bud, and there are a few scenes in which she gets some funny lines or bits, though they don’t have much to do with the main plot of the film.
McCarthy is a significant comic talent who, having burst on the film scene in the highly successful Bridesmaids, found equally effective roles in The Heat and Spy. It is probably no coincidence that those three films were all directed by Paul Feig, who seems to have a knack for how to use her comic talents. Her non-Feig films—including The Boss, Identity Thief and Tammy—have been far less successful, and I’m afraid Life of the Partyfalls into the latter category. There is a kind of sweetness to the movie in the depiction of the close mother-daughter relationship (the reason, I suppose, that the film was released on Mothers’ Day weekend), and a message about it being never too late to follow your dreams (not unlike Crosby’s movie) as well as the necessity for female solidarity (not unlike McCarthy’s earlier Bridesmaids), but it doesn’t all come together into a memorable movie. I didn’t find it compelling, so I’m giving it two Jacqueline Susanns. If you are a big McCarthy fan, you might want to go see this film. But most of you are probably planning to go to Deadpool 2this weekend, so this review is probably a moot point anyway. Enjoy!