“Life of the Party” isn’t going to get Melissa McCarthy an invitation back to the Academy Awards, but there is still a lot to celebrate.
McCarthy stars as Deanna, 40-something mother of Maddie (Molly Gordon) and wife of Dan (Matt Walsh). As they pull away from dropping their only daughter off for her senior year of college, Dan confesses he wants a divorce. He’s been having an affair with a real estate agent named Marcie (Julie Bowen).
The opening sequence is reminiscent of another film McCarthy wrote with her husband Ben Falcone: “Tammy.” Deanna is quite the opposite of Tammy in almost every way. Deanna is put together, intelligent, and brightly optimistic. Tammy was course, unrefined, and generally blamed the world for her problems. And yet, these opening sequences are close parallels. Both women experience an emotionally taxing event. In Deanna’s case, she leaves her daughter at school. For Tammy, it was hitting a deer with her car and getting fired from her job. From there, both women learn their husbands are cheating, and both immediately go to their mothers for support.
It is in what comes next that the two movies diverge. They still bare traces of similarity, but the stories take two different paths.
After finding consolation with her parents (Jacki Weaver and Stephen Root), Deanna goes home to the house she and Dan have shared, and which he has decided to sell. It turns out that, as is far too common, Deanna left college with one year to go because her husband didn’t think his pregnant wife needed to finish her education. Further, Dan kept all of their assets in his name only. She has no claim on their home or, basically, on their life.
Facing homelessness and with no marketable job skills, Deanna decides to go back to college and complete her degree. The school she quit twenty years ago happens to be the very university where her daughter is enjoying her senior year. Suddenly, mother and daughter are seniors together. Which, obviously, thrills Maddie.
There are traces of other films throughout the ensuing story. It is reminiscent of Rodney Dangerfield’s “Back to School,” for one. And yet, McCarthy’s sunny disposition and the added layers of mother/daughter relationships and women in mid-life breathe new life into the story.
Some of the humor falls a little flat, feeling a little too derivative sometimes. A few of the punchlines are quotable before you ever hear them, because you know exactly what comes next. But then it is balanced with some truly hilarious moments that, even when not totally surprising, still seem to come from nowhere. Deanna becomes a sort of mascot for Maddie’s sorority sisters, one of whom shares a class with her. They bring her into their fold and take her out to get her mind off things like divorce.
Deanna dives into college life, even moving into the dorms in order to take care of the fact that Dan is selling the house from under her. She gets the stereotypical weird roommate, Leonor (Heidi Gardner), but even makes that work. Her exuberance makes her a woman who just gets things done.
At a frat party, Maddie drags her into a bathroom and helps her doff the mom uniform and literally let down her hair. Which is when she meets bartender Jack (Luke Benward) and has quite a night with him. That union happens off-screen, but sparks in Jack an unexpected sort of adoration. When she explains it was a one time thing, he doesn’t want to accept it and continues to pursue her in ways that are sweet and not creepy.
Deanna also has a best friend, Christine (Maya Rudolph). There is a sense that Christine sort of envies her friend’s newfound freedom, but not because of unhappiness in her own life. It’s quite the opposite, in fact. Christine is happily married to Frank (Damon Jones). Their marriage could easily be based on McCarthy and Falcone’s. They are funny and needle each other, and fit well together in the way that happy couples do when they’re twenty years in.
There are some truly laugh out loud scenes in “Life of the Party.” Some are accompanied by secondhand embarrassment as you desperately want to stop certain characters from doing the exact things they’re about to do. And one dinner scene in particular is one of the most brilliantly comedic revelations I’ve seen in a long time.
The film isn’t without its issues, though. Aside from Deanna, every character is one-dimensional. There are glimpses into deeper personal lives of Maddie and her friends, but we really only see pieces of them. Gillian Jacobs is the “Coma Girl,” Helen. Adria Arjona is impossibly beautiful Amanda. Jessie Ennis is shy, insecure Debbie. And there are the requisite mean girls, Jennifer (Debby Ryan) and Trina (Yani Simone). They are mean for no particular reason, casting particular cruelty at poor Deanna for nothing more than the fact that she’s…older than them?
This is a far more subdued version of McCarthy than we’ve seen in other films like “Spy” and “Bridesmaids.” But that works to her favor here. She is a woman who faces mid-life as a castaway of sorts, shunted aside after years of devotion to her family. She struggles to find a way to feel relevant and needed. Many middle aged women can relate, even if they don’t find themselves suddenly single. The fears and insecurities women face are brought vividly to life and normalized. It is also a very sweet story about a mother and daughter. Their relationship demonstrates the way daughters transitioning to adulthood become true friends with their mothers. And here, it works so well because it feels natural instead of forced. This is a credit to both McCarthy and Gordon, who clearly respect and admire one another.
“Life of the Party” isn’t groundbreaking. But it isn’t trying to be. It is a sweet, charming, and funny story about carrying on when things don’t work out the way they’re supposed to. If you’re lucky enough, take your mother to see it, and enjoy some pleasant, inoffensive fun together.