McCarthy and Falcone stay firmly within their comfort zone on Life of the Party, but their take on the college comedy sub-genre is good natured fun.
Melissa McCarthy has reached that point where, like other funny people before her (see: Will Ferrell), her comedies are probably starting to blur together for some moviegoers. Her latest offering, Life of the Party, thankfully falls on the better side of McCarthy's vehicles released since her breakout role in Bridesmaids. The film is very much in line with McCarthy's previous collaborations with her writer/director husband Ben Falcone in terms of style, yet its strengths outweigh its flaws at the end of the day. McCarthy and Falcone stay firmly within their comfort zone on Life of the Party, but their take on the college comedy sub-genre is good natured fun.
McCarthy stars as Deanna Miles, a dedicated wife and mother who dropped out of college her senior year in order to care for her daughter, Maddie (Molly Gordon). Now that Maddie is a college senior herself, Deanna is ready for a new adventure with her husband Dan (Matt Walsh), starting with a romantic vacation to Europe. That's when Dan drops a bombshell on Deanna: he wants a divorce and is already seeing someone else whom he intends to marry. Dan also plans to sell their house right away (since the property is in his name), leaving Deanna heartbroken and up the creek without a paddle.
After taking some time to pull herself back together, Deanna decides to do the one thing she always regretted not doing: finish her bachelors degree in archaeology and graduate from college. Deanna thus jumps head-first back into the college experience on her old stomping grounds at Decatur University... which is the same school that Maddie is now attending. Maddie is naturally uncomfortable at first with having her mom on campus full-time, but she comes around to the idea as she and Deanna settle in for a rather wild (and most unexpected) senior year together.
Life of the Party is essentially a series of comedy skits based around a common theme (40-something mom goes back to college) and strung together with enough plot to sustain a feature film. It uses the same structure as McCarthy and Falcone's previous two films together, but has a clearer throughline than their first movie, Tammy, and combines tender moments with zany set pieces better than their second collaboration, The Boss. At the same time, Life of the Party falls short of the satirical comedy heights scaled by The Boss and delivers more in the way of chuckle worthy beats than laugh out loud scenarios. It similarly falls short of McCarthy's collaborations with director Paul Feig on Bridesmaids and Spy, when it comes to character development and the story department.
Falcone is likewise a step down from Feig behind the camera, but his directing has improved since he made his feature debut on Tammy. Life of the Party is more polished than the average SNL routine, yet its sense of blocking and pacing within scenes aren't that different from a live TV comedy show. Falcone, reuniting with The Boss cinematographer Julio Macat, shoots the film in a clean, if bland, fashion and serves up some good visual gags along the way, but for the most part Life of the Party coasts by on the strengths of its cast. McCarthy remains as adept as ever at combining over the top humor and slapstick with sincere drama, so she's able to carry the movie with some help from the supporting players here.
Gordon as Maddie serves as the straight (wo)man for her onscreen mother to bounce jokes off, but there are some real standouts among the members of Maddie's sorority in Life of the Party. Gillian Jacobs' character Helen is mostly a one-note running joke (she went to college late after spending eight years in a coma), but the former Community star makes the most of what could have otherwise been a forgettable part. Jessie Ennis, who appeared with Jacobs on Love, also leaves her mark as the sorority's most insecure member, Debbie, while Maya Rudolph is very much the scene-stealer you would expect playing Deanna's rowdy BFF, Christine. There's a sense the Life of the Party ensemble is enjoying themselves no matter how large or small their roles are, and that lends the film an affable feeling it might not have had otherwise.
Life of the Party also has fun subverting the tropes of the male-driven college comedy, whether by giving Deanna a hunky younger love interest named Jack (Luke Benward) or switching up the genders typically associated with certain archetypes. The movie certainly doesn't push the envelope as far as it could in this respect, much less (a la last week's Tully) dive deeply into the questions it raises about how motherhood impacts a person's sense of identity. (The issue of Deanna's 22-year old credits at Decatur University still being good is amusingly skirted over too.) Even so, it's nice to see a college comedy take a more actively progressive and kind-hearted approach to the genre.
In the end, Life of the Party clears the not-so-high bar it sets for itself and delivers its fair share of forgettable, yet otherwise solid comedy. It's not a film that needs to be seen on the big screen, but Life of the Party is more light-hearted and jovial than most other movies playing in theaters right now (independent and big-budget films alike) and should please the steadfast members of McCarthy's fanbase. In the meantime, those who are waiting for something a little more unusual from McCarthy should stay tuned for the films she has coming out later this year (like the Henson Company puppet noir mystery The Happytown Murders).
Life of the Party is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 105 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for sexual material, drug content and partying.
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