Melissa McCarthy’s new movie Life of the Party is fine. If you were on a cross-country flight and were looking for a way to pass the next 105 minutes, you’d watch it and maybe laugh once or twice and probably even turn to your seatmate and say, “That actually wasn’t that bad.” It’s the platonic ideal of a hit-and-miss studio comedy.
The kind of movie you do when you’re just fulfilling your contact, so you’ll be allowed to make a passion project next. A classic “one for them” before the “one for you” situation. Except Life of the Party wasn’t supposed to be one for them — this is McCarthy’s “one for you” movie.
About a mom finally going back to school to finish her degree after putting her dreams on hold for her family, McCarthy co-wrote Life of the Party with her husband Ben Falcone, who also directed the college-set comedy. It’s the third movie they’ve done together now, after 2014’s Tammy and 2016’s The Boss. And none of them have been particularly, well, good.1 Or funny.
And that last one is especially damning, because Melissa McCarthy herself is extremely funny. She had herself a rare Moment last fall, playing former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on SNL. She’s capable of driving people to the box office in a way that few other current comedians can match. Tammy made $84 million. The Boss took home $63 million. And Life of the Party will probably surpass them both.
(For comparison’s sake: that’s over double what Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler were able to bring in with their similarly high-concept comedy The House. It’s also over 10,000% more than her Bridesmaids co-star Kristen Wiig made with Welcome to Me.)
In other words, McCarthy is a bonafide Movie Star. She’s the one front-and-centre on all the Life of the Party posters. She’s the biggest name in the cast. Top of the call sheet. This is her movie. So how come it’s not, you know, better?
Thanks to The Heat and Spy, McCarthy went from scene-stealing in other people’s movies to leading her own, and there’s a promising movie stuck inside Life of the Party, which is basically her take on Old School — playing a mom who gets a second chance at college after her heel of a husband (an underused Matt Walsh) unceremoniously announces he wants a divorce after they drop their daughter off for her senior year. That’s not just an opportunity for party hijinks and showing off McCarthy’s legitimately impressive ‘80s dance moves, it’s also got some potential dramatic teeth.
Instead though, Life of the Party’s just another frustrating waste of McCarthy’s talents — for broad physical comedy, sure, but also for bringing pathos and empathy to otherwise over-the-top characters. Instead, we get to watch her pratfall around a classroom and sweat through multiple layers, and get mocked by clichéd “mean girls” before getting She’s All That’d at a party by her daughter taking off her glasses and embroidered smock and fixing her hair.
It’s all so formulaic and cheesy. And safe. And sure, maybe that’d be forgivable if she was just being plugged into some studio comedy starring, I don’t know, say, Jason Bateman. But getting to “one for you” territory isn’t easy. Hollywood loves to pigeonhole actors and keep them doing the same risk-averse schtick as long as it remains profitable. If you want to branch out, to show you can do more, you usually have to do it yourself.
And typically, those movies you get to make on your own should be better. That hard-earned creative control allows an actor to do things they otherwise wouldn’t be allowed to do — like make the Deadpool movie you always wanted to make, convince investors to let you do your own insanely dangerous stunts, prove you deserve to be the leading man in your own story, or do an entire movie speaking nothing but terribly-accented Spanish.
After Bridesmaids, Kristen Wiig went and made a trio of offbeat indie movies: Hateship Loveship, The Skeleton Twins, Welcome to Me. And while they weren’t all successful (box office-wise, they weren’t successful at all), they were a chance for Wiig to show she had more in her repertoire than just goofy voices and impressions. That she could be an actor, not just a comedian. It’s the same thing Bill Hader is currently doing in his (excellent) hitman dramedy Barry — using his window to show off a different side.
McCarthy will get a chance to do the same in the upcoming Can You Ever Forgive Me? later this year, where she’ll be playing the late literary biographer/forger Lee Israel, a dramatic turn that could potentially put McCarthy in the running for an Oscar nomination. And it’s about time.
Because Life of the Party isn’t pushing her anywhere. It’s firmly inside her comfort zone. The kind of movies she’s already been doing, only with diminishing results.2 And if McCarthy keeps this up, she’s going to have a harder and harder time finding people willing to let her and her husband go off and make whatever they want. That window she’s currently in doesn’t stay open forever.3 Just ask Will Ferrell.
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|1.||↑||Tammy and The Boss topped out at 24 percent and 22 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, respectively. Life of the Party is currently sitting at 39 percent.|
|2.||↑||For some reason, Paul Feig has seemingly found the key to unlocking next-level performances from McCarthy that her and Falcone can’t seem to access on their own.|
|3.||↑||Unless you’re Tom Cruise, apparently.|