"Life of the Party" begins as a light dramedy, quickly evolves into a broad sitcom, then ends as a somber melodrama. That no one involved with the movie seems to notice the difference is the least of their problems.
Perhaps signaling that writer/director Barra Grant prefers the breezy ain't-rehab-a-hoot? style of a "28 Days" over the darker character study of a "The Lost Weekend" or a "Clean and Sober," "Life of the Party" tries desperately to wring laughs out of an intervention gone all wrong. This could, I suppose, be the grounds for a sharp dark comedy, what with the wishy-washy friends and the flaky psychologist. But in Grant's hands, it comes out all wrong: our characters trip over each other with their double-takes and their constant mugging and hammy whining.
Eion Bailey stars as Michael, a former big man on campus whose grown-up life is reduced to booze and insincere smugness. Again, there's potential here, with the one-time star athlete, the guy everyone wanted to be, now living as the drunk jerk you're glad you're not. But where does Grant take this idea? Everywhere, it seems. We start in movie-of-the-week territory, with Michael waking to a bottle of vodka on his nightstand. Rampant boozing, a who-cares? attitude at work, and flagrant womanizing is not enough for his friends to despise him; when a pal lends him his prized 1966 Mustang after Michael breaks into the poor guy's garage (trying to steal the car, what a pal!), we want to grab the friend by the collar and tell him that if he was too stupid to foresee the outcome (namely, the aforementioned Mustang being wrapped around a tree), it's his own damn fault.
Anyway. Michael's wife, Phoebe (Ellen Pompeo), finally works up the courage to dump the schmuck, yet still worries about him. And so she gathers all of Michael's friends, coworkers, and family for an intervention. But then the shrink (Larry Miller, in the film's lone voice of sanity) fails to show, leaving the gang to start running around in a panic. ("Maybe we should hide!" one recommends as Michael arrives.)
It's here we suddenly find ourselves in a new, dumber movie - we could tolerate the limp characterizations and predictable dramatics, but the constant shtick that comes next is too much. Everyone gets reduced to caricatures, all of them operating on either "shrill" or "timid." But then, as if to answer a challenge regarding the awfulness of the material, the story moves to the neighborhood country club, where everyone decides to take the intervention. Everyone forgets not to order liquor, ha ha, and sooner or later we reach a point where the Heimlich Maneuver is hauled in for a slapstick routine.
And yet we have still not yet reached breaking point. Following the choking-pal jokes, Michael and his closest friends wander outside to stand knee-deep in a pond and talk about the good old days. Suddenly, it's thirtysomething angst for the Dockers set. One friend complains that he always looked up to Michael. Another admits he is in love with Phoebe (yet has not acted on it).
At this point things get fuzzy, as the drama gets cheesier and crappier, with the four pals winding up back at the old high school late one night as Michael, in some sort of drunken craze, wants to play Russian roulette. And to think only forty minutes earlier, we were yukking it up with pratfalls.
The problem, aside from the horrid dialogue and the mediocre acting and the generic direction and the overall sense of obnoxiousness, is that we are essentially asked to care about a selfish ass who deserves no love from us, nor is he vile in any way that is interesting, unique, or otherwise worthy of our attention. We spend the entire film wishing for his wife to leave him for good, yet the movie stubbornly keeps asking us to hope they get back together. By the end, when he does finally change, it feels false, the result not of genuine character growth but merely lazy writing, as if Grant figured she couldn't keep asking us to wish him a happy ending unless she let him deserve one.
Video & Audio
Despite a relatively smallish budget, "Life of the Party" looks and sounds very slick. The low-key cinematography comes off cleanly in the anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) presentation, and Dolby stereo makes good use of the dialogue-heavy soundtrack. Optional English and Spanish subtitles are available.
Grant's commentary is dry but often informative. There are many moments of "I loved this scene" or "I loved this shot," but in between we get some helpful making-of tidbits.
"Drunken Not Stirred: The Making of Life of the Party" (10:20) is typical talking-head interview EPK fluff in which everyone says how great it was to make the movie. Points deducted for reusing the film's tagline ("drunken, not stirred"), which is about as stupid a tagline as you'll find these days.
The film's trailer is included, as is a gallery of other ThinkFilm releases. That same gallery also automatically plays as the disc loads; you can skip over it if you choose.
There have been many good, even great, films about, as one character describes Michael, a "boozed-up peckerhead." But "Life of the Party" is far from that list. Skip It.