Life of the Party commits a great many sins. Its jokes feel either hard-fought or supremely easy. Its tone is messy. The plot makes little to no sense. The characterizations are paper thin, and while we’re here, the first 20 minutes border on unwatchable. And yet, we still liked Melissa McCarthy in it.
This will come as no surprise to devotees of the McCarthy Cinematic Universe, but her dogged persona of ‘impossible to humiliate super-woman’ is at it again. And Melissa McCarthy is just good in that mode. She insists that she’s bringing back “The Quad” as college slang, and we accept it. She can’t stop making awkward toasts to social causes while drinking at a frat party, and we believe that she means them. And she won’t give up on getting a degree she failed to complete some 20 years prior, and goddamn it, we hope she finishes it. She’s always been good at this brand of amiable, unstoppable humor. She’s the life that Life of the Party often needs, with a little help with from her supporting cast and just enough laughs to show for it.
This is McCarthy’s Back to School. (Or is it like a Goldie Hawn Protocol thing?) On spec, it’s a fish-out-of-water campus lampoon with absurdist twists, some optimistic notes about second chances, and a carefully constructed PG-13 lens of college drug and alcohol consumption suggesting this was made with teens and Boomers in mind. Life of the Party is out close enough to college graduations to attract good feelings, and it was likely made at a low cost with limited rooms and sets. It is what it is, which is carefully scheduled and half-heartedly assembled counter-programming. Did we mention it’s a star vehicle? Oh, and a comedy. That too.
McCarthy is Deanna Miles, a recently divorced mom looking for some extracurricular meaning in her life. She’s a mom’s mom: Permed hair. Baggy sweatshirts with bedazzled jewels, embroidery, and sassy lettering. The kind of big glasses that Bill Gates wore between 1987 and 1994. McCarthy’s affections toward her daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon) are endearing, but have seemingly blinded her to the total emotional dead zone that is her husband Dan (Matt Walsh). Dan dumps Deanna the second they drop their daughter off for her senior year; like ripping off a Band-Aid, he insists.
It’s cold, blunt, and the stuff of bad cringe comedy. To watch McCarthy kick her husband’s car meekly because she doesn’t know how else to act is rough, and a little mean. This is the bad opening, where the tone is messy bordering on curt, and the movie almost washes out. Is it Office comedy, or an ashes-to-diamonds empowerment yarn? But there’s hope around the corner. Broke, and with a little mid-life re-invigoration, Deanna’s next act will be to finish the archaeology degree she never completed. And this is when the movie gets a little better. Once Life of the Party accepts itself as something broad and silly, it goes down a lot easier for everybody.
McCarthy is the ultimate spokesperson for making lemonade out of studio lemons. And in a bit of well-meaning goofiness, she gets to live out all the silly little joys of college without any of the hangovers/GPA anxiety/terrors of oncoming debt. Deanna gets in without a problem, registers for exactly the courses she needs to get a degree, spends an offensive sum of money on college swag with no concern, and gets a dorm room as a 43-year old woman no questions asked. Weeks after the semester starts, presumably. Did we mention she’s in the same college as her daughter?
And yet, those scoff-worthy details grow easier to forgive as McCarthy starts to shine. In a role she could deliver in her sleep, McCarthy still manages to get by on her better instincts. She’s an advocate for education, women supporting women, studying hard, common courtesy, and the dogged pursuit of the self, no matter how embarrassed those around her might be. See McCarthy dance with shoulder pads at an ‘80s party. Watch her score in the library stacks with an aw-shucks glow. Witness as she grabs any scene she’s in and makes it watchable, and even endearing.
Director Ben Falcone, even when he has a shaky hand on the logic or style of his script (co-written with McCarthy), knows how to just let his star goof off, and he’s assembled some mighty funny back-of-the-class kids behind his valedictorian class clown. Actors like Jimmy O. Yang, Gillian Jacobs, Maya Rudolph, Chris Parnell and others bask in the meager material they’re given. Jacobs is a hip older student (because she was in a coma and it’s played funnier than it sounds) who grooves on McCarthy, and Parnell is a nerdy, pun-loving professor. Rudolph? A slurry best friend with wine coolers. All staid, but agreeably silly. There’s no great struggle, or nuance in storytelling, or any of that. We get jokes from comedians having a visibly good time. Nothing more, nothing less.
Life of the Party exists in one of those unfortunate places where it’s easy to criticize, but McCarthy still makes you smile, and even laugh. So what’s left to grade? McCarthy’s participation credit alone makes up for the lack of research or clarity of thesis. So Life of the Party passes. Barely.