Melissa McCarthy swaps two weeks in Italy for two semesters in college in a failing feminist comedy.
“Life of the Party” follows Deanna (Melissa McCarthy), a recent divorcee, as she re-evaluates her life in the aftermath of her ex-husband’s sudden departure to Italy with his new mistress. Having dropped out of college before her fourth year, she resumes her archaeology degree alongside her daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon), who is finishing her fourth year as well. Amid frat parties and public presentations, Deanna claims the college experience she was never able to have.
From Deanna’s very first scene in which she dons a pink sweater emblazoned with “proud mom,” McCarthy’s screen presence is as charming as ever. Her character is sincere and well-meaning, a refreshing alternative to the jaded divorcees frequently found in films. But even after brushing out her tight curls and ditching her oversized glasses for a more youthful look, she remains aggressively momlike with cringy archaeology jokes and comforting, homemade lasagna.
But that’s the extent to which McCarthy’s character shines. The film breezes past any potential conflict of Deanna attending college with her daughter. Though Maddie’s disagreement with the situation is evident through rolled eyes and desperate attempts to shoo her mother out of her sorority house, she almost immediately turns to unbuttoning Deanna’s blouse at a frat party. Maddie initially expresses her annoyance with her sorority sisters for inviting her mom to a party, but suddenly supports Deanna’s presence with no apparent instigator for change – a bothersome inconsistency in character.
Alongside its lackluster conflict, the film tries to incorporate commentary on serious issues, such as climate change and gender equality. But its attempts fall flat amid the frivolous makeovers and party scenes. While Deanna toasts to cleaning the coral reefs and maternity leave for all genders, the college students around her party on. The portrayal feels unrealistic, only allowing the older characters to care about such problems, and robbing its plot of any nuance.
The film also tries to present a feminist message. Deanna’s husband convinced her to drop out to raise their daughter while he continued his degree, and Deanna re-enrolls in order to fulfill her own dreams. Attempts at embodying the feminist spirit, however, are undermined by the female characters that so easily fall into stereotypes. Deanna’s goth roommate serves as a stereotypical millennial, complete with fear of just about everything and a penchant for staying in her room.
Meanwhile, one of Deanna’s classmates, Jennifer (Debby Ryan), and her unnamed sidekick hate Deanna for no apparent reason. Ryan’s acting as a stereotypical mean girl is heavy-handed, complete with tossing her hair over her shoulders and rolling her eyes, and reminiscent of mean girls in Disney TV shows. The intense female support shown by both Deanna and her sorority sister friends throughout the film is rendered useless by petty, meaningless rivalry.
While many of the sorority sisters exist simply to stand there, look pretty and drink, the one plus-size character besides Deanna features many stereotypes of fat characters, such as general stupidity and running up the stairs at the mere mention of cake. The stereotype is reinforced when Deanna praises her new friends for their intelligence and kindness only to then focus on the reassurance that their bodies are perfect as well, with Deanna commenting on one girl’s thin legs and another’s toned body. The film’s refusal to challenge the notion that women must be beautiful, even when presented in addition to other qualities, refutes the seemingly feminist spirit of the scene.
Though “Life of the Party” features a genuine performance by McCarthy and has the potential to serve as an adequate feminist comedy, its inability to move beyond basic stereotypes ensures its failing grade.