Movie Review: McCarthy’s Exuberance Propels ‘Life of the Party’

On the conveyer belt of Melissa McCarthy studio comedies, “Life of the Party” is another fitfully funny but marginally memorable bit of high-concept folderol. It’s superior to “Identity Theft” and “The Boss” but doesn’t approach the crafty zest of “Spy.” Like many of her star vehicles, its appeal hinges 100 percent on her character’s likeability and charisma. In the hands once again of her director—and husband—Ben Falcone, she delightfully dredges an idea from mediocrity to serviceability and then some.

She plays Deanna Miles, a middle-aged mother of a college senior whose life is upended when her adulterous husband Dan (Matt Walsh) announces he wants a divorce. Suddenly marooned, she uses her newfound singledom to rewrite her biggest regret in life: dropping out of college to raise her daughter a year before finishing her degree. So she re-enrolls, at her daughter Maddie’s (Molly Gordon) university, no less.

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For a comedy set in contemporary college life, with its hedonistic bacchanals straight out of Hieronymus Bosch, “Life of the Party” is rated a conservative PG-13. I can’t say I missed the F-bombs and sexcapades and beer enemas of a movie like “Blockers.” We’re approaching peak gross-out in the world of hard-R comedies, and “Life of the Party” is comparatively sweet.

Much of its humor derives from the clean, fish-out-of-water absurdity of McCarthy’s eager 40-something student deploying arcane phrases—“I’ll see you on the quad;” “I’m already getting senioritis!”—as if no decades passed between her junior and senior years. Corny in her speech and gaudily dressed in the loudest apparel from the collegiate store, she’s everybody’s square mom, the sort who would narc on a classmate’s weed stash or spend a Saturday night studying.

Until, that is, she discovers the campus social scene. Pretty soon, with the help of her daughter’s sorority, she earns a much-needed makeover and begins to embrace the possibilities of free love and consequence-free actions that are almost exclusive to college life. She endures a walk of shame, tussles with mean girls, tries to engage a weirdo roommate. We’ve all been there, or have at least been adjacent to wherever “there” is.

You get the impression McCarthy, a master of improvisation, reined herself in and mostly stuck to the script; even her Sean Spicer sketches seemed looser and woollier than this buttoned-down performance. Yet her enthusiasm is infectious, and elevated by a women’s-empowerment subtext that is just present enough in a comedy this broad. For mainstream Hollywood, it’s almost woke.

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Aside from McCarthy’s talents in front of the camera, “Life of the Party” is blessed with an uncynical script, penned by Falcone and McCarthy, that doesn’t rely on cruelty and humiliation to earn laughs. This is partly why the one exception to this rule, an embarrassing meltdown Deanna suffers while attempting to give an archaeology lecture, is the movie’s nadir. It’s an ugly and undeserved abdication of dignity that we’d expect from a lesser film.

Other gags don’t work for more benign reasons; all of the scenes with Deanna’s parents (Jacki Weaver and Stephen Root) fall flat as flapjacks, and a big wedding-crashing set piece toward the end is too clichéd to rouse us.

McCarthy today is the Jim Carrey of ‘90s comedy, parlaying her small-screen success into a string of expensive Silver Screen sitcoms. As with Carrey, her appeal in studio slapstick may be finite. But also as with Carrey, she’s starting to dip her toes in more dramatic, arty waters. Later this year, she stars as the complicated, real-life journalist and forger Lee Israel in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” an Oscar-hype-y biopic. I for one look forward to the change; the conveyer belt can use some disruption.

“Life of the Party” opens Friday at most area theaters.