"LIFE OF THE PARTY" — 2 stars — Melissa McCarthy,Gillian Jacobs, Debby Ryan, Molly Gordon, Jessie Ennis, Adria Arjona; PG-13 (sexual material, drug content and partying ); in general release
Ben Falcone's "Life of the Party" feels like a handful of loose change. You've got a couple of quarters and maybe a few dimes, but you've also got a lot of useless pennies, and there's not much holding everything together.
The movie is a star vehicle for Melissa McCarthy that follows the on-campus adventures of a woman recently separated from her husband who goes back to college to finish her degree. McCarthy plays Deanna, a fun-loving if naive middle-aged mother who gets blindsided when her longtime husband Dan (Matt Walsh) asks for a divorce about 30 seconds after they drop their daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon) off for her senior year at Decatur University.
Dan is already in love with another woman — his uptight realtor (Julie Bowen), who according to Dan, has a generous social media following — and they've decided to sell Dan and Deanna's home. Trouble is the home is in Dan's name, so Deanna is out on the streets.
In desperation, Deanna tries to turn marital lemons into academic lemonade and returns to her alma mater, to the understandable surprise of her daughter. The plan is to finish the archeology degree she abandoned back when she got pregnant with Maddie.
In terms of plot, that's really about it. Aside from a few tacked-on twists that try to introduce some conflict and tension to the story, "Life of the Party" is really about dropping McCarthy into a campus full of coeds and letting her do her thing.
In some places it works, and McCarthy fans will enjoy her unique combination of sweet, self-deprecating physical humor. She gets to play off Maddie and her sorority sisters — including Helen (Gillian Jacobs), a student recovering from an eight-year coma who teams up with Deanna to face down the obligatory Mean Girls in archeology class. She plays off her best friend Christine (Maya Rudolph) and her creepy roommate Leonor (Heidi Gardner), who never leaves their dorm room.
She also plays off Jack (Luke Benward), the naive boy-toy she hooks up with at a keg party who follows her around like a puppy even if she doesn't appreciate him referring to her as the Dumbledore-like mentor of his blossoming sexual experience.
The sexual content is about what you'd expect from a PG-13 film, tame enough to avoid the R rating but frequent enough to keep it out of family-friendly range, even if it's pretty much always played for laughs. "Life of the Party" has a tendency to draw out its comic scenes, either to maximize the awkwardness or to keep the laughs coming, and too often, the scenes get pushed past their expiration date.
You don't really expect depth from a slapstick comedy like this, but "Life of the Party" is sincere enough to make its developmental flaws more obvious. Deanna never really seems to be mourning her separation — maybe because Dan is such an obvious two-dimensional jerk — and Maddie's plight, dealing with the simultaneous shattering of her home life and the injection of her mother into her day-to-day coed independence — feels a little ignored.
The bigger problem, though, is that the genuinely funny bits aren't quite enough to offset the weak bits, and none of the bits really add up to a coherent whole. In a way, "Life of the Party" almost feels like it would make a good sitcom, where it could lean hard on the joke of the moment without worrying too much about what's coming in the distant horizon.
"Life of the Party" is rated PG-13 for sexual material, drug content and partying; running time: 105 minutes.