A fish-out-of-water comedy with shades of 2008's irresistible "The House Bunny
" glistening in the light, the college-set "Life of the Party" is perhaps not quite as pinprick-sharp as that Anna Faris vehicle, but it's almost as winning while it's buzzing along. Much of the credit must go to the indefatigable Melissa McCarthy (2016's "Ghostbusters
"), deservedly the focal point in every scene as she crafts yet another very funny, deeply sympathetic protagonist. She plays Deanna Miles (Melissa McCarthy), a devoted wife and mother who is left shell-shocked when her husband of twenty-two years, Dan (Matt Walsh), abruptly tells her he's been having an affair and wants a divorce. For a woman who sacrificed her senior year of college to care for her family, the news comes like a punch to the gut. Faced with starting her life over in her forties, she enthusiastically concocts a plan to return to Decatur Universitythe same school daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon) attendsto earn her archaeology degree.
The third big-screen collaboration between McCarthy and her writer-director husband Ben Falcone (following 2014's "Tammy
" and 2016's "The Boss
"), "Life of the Party" earns a lot of points for defying expectations in a few key ways. The trajectory of the narrative is never in question, but it's the getting-there where Falcone and McCarthy (who co-wrote the screenplay together) excel. For one, Deanna has a healthy, loving, refreshingly unrocky relationship with daughter Maddie, the latter's trepidations over her mom joining the same university and hanging out with her sorority sisters tackled and overcome quickly. That Maddie wants to help her mother feel like she belongsyes, there is an amusing bathroom makeover scene involving a stranger's very hairy brushis rather heartwarming. Likewise, Maddie's friendsamong them, former coma patient Helen (Gillian Jacobs) and Glenn Close super-fan Debbie (Jessie Ennis)latch onto Deanna quickly, seeing her not as a square but as an older, wiser pal in whom they can confide while they show her the ropes of 21st-century college life.
As Deanna begins to live out the youth she never got a chance to finish, attending ragers, getting frisky amid the library stacks with the adorably smitten Jack (Luke Benward), and rediscovering her love of archaeology, the film shrewdly does not make Deanna the butt of the joke. The humor, then, comes from her mostly believable experiences as a long-grown woman who joyously throws herself into the day-to-day existence of a college student but whose wild streak is accompanied by her greater worldly knowledge. A scene where she cannot help herself from making socially conscientious toasts with each shot she takes at a kegger is enormously funny. Another set-piece where Deanna (violently phobic of public speaking) must give an oral presentation to her class is a five-minute masterclass in comedy performed by one of the most gifted comic actors working today. Also an unexpected charmer: Deanna's romance with 21-year-old Jack, a guy she knows is too young for her but whom she cannot resist. When the film briefly stumbles, or does not quite work as welland there are a few instances of this, including the inevitable accidental eating of pot brownies and a subsequent crashing of a weddingit typically gets back on track immediately after.
Is it too hyperbolic to anoint Melissa McCarthy a national treasure? Even when her films aren't perfect, she always is, hitting every beat exactly right, navigating broad humor with genuine human emotion. McCarthy brings a cheery positivity to Deanna that proves impossible not to love; when things do not go her way, or she is hurt by others, the viewer is instantly and without question on her side. Watching her as she takes a path she long thought had passed her by is the picture's greatest pleasure. McCarthy shares a charismatic rapport with all her game co-stars, among them Molly Gordon (2015's "Love the Coopers
") as daughter Maddie; Gillian Jacobs (2015's "Hot Tub Time Machine 2
") as good-natured semi-celebrity Helen, a sophomore also making up for lost time after an eight-year coma; Luke Benward (2006's "How to Eat Fried Worms
") as Deanna's unexpected love interest Jack; Debby Ryan (2018's "Every Day"), deliciously, amusingly spiteful as mean girl Jennifer; Maya Rudolph (2015's "Sisters
") as Deanna's best friend Christine, living vicariously through her wild collegiate experiences; Julie Bowen (TV's "Modern Family") as Dan's catty new beau Marcie Strong; and Heidi Gardner (TV's "Saturday Night Live"), a scream as Deanna's equal parts pleasant and frightful goth dormmate Leonor.
"Life of the Party" is one of those films traversing nearly a year's time at a university where the lead character seemingly only takes one class (no others are glimpsed). This may give the movie's episodic narrative a certain unevenness, but the core of Deanna's personally defining journey remains well-observed and intact. The results entertain and inspire while serving up a fairly consistent number of laughs. By the end, Deanna's successes feel like ours. The only missed opportunity: Deanna's genuinely sweet, tough-to-quit relationship with Jack disappointingly lacks closure. McCarthy and Benward are not the likeliest of couplesat one point, Deanna comes to the terrifying conclusion Jack may be less than half her agebut they have such a unforced, authentic chemistry together one shouldn't be so quick to write them off. "Life of the Party" is more confection than insta-classic in the annals of college comedies, but that's okay. The film treats its characters with a fresh intelligence foregoing or sometimes twisting the genre's hoariest clichés, and at its center is yet another wonderfully layered performance from Melissa McCarthy, able to generate happiness with each new step in front of the camera.