Can we all just agree that Melissa McCarthy is a treasure? Because that is something I’ve known intellectually for awhile, but I don’t think I really understood it until I watched her latest comedy, Life of the Party. Granted, the film was directed by her husband Ben Falcone, based on a script the pair wrote together — so it’s no surprise that she would shine in it. Still, the movie may be one of the nicest, most kind-hearted things I’ve seen in awhile.
As you know, the movie review assignments from TK tend to be a fraught affair sometimes, and this month he signed me up for not one but TWO movies about older women getting their groove back (check back with me in a few weeks once I’ve watched Book Club, in which Murphy Brown reads Fifty Shades of Grey). After watching the trailer for Life of the Party, where McCarthy plays a middle-aged mom going back to finish her college degree at the same school her daughter attends, my expectation was that the movie would be, you know… fine. Funny, sure. But predictable. And I will say that this is one of those rare cases where the marketing for the movie does it justice. It IS funny, and it IS predictable. Mostly. But just because it ends up exactly where you expect doesn’t mean there aren’t some pretty great surprises along the way.
And the chief surprise is the treatment of McCarthy’s character, Deanna (a.k.a Dee Dee, a.k.a. Dee Rock, a.k.a. Glenn). She starts the film as a frumpy housewife, who dropped out of college her senior year due to her pregnancy. Her husband, a hateable dumpster-fire of a dude played by Matt Walsh, stayed on to finish his degree, but didn’t think it was worthwhile to pay for two tuitions. And that’s Deanna in a nutshell — she puts her own dreams to the side for everyone else. So when he announces that he’s leaving her for a cut-throat real estate agent (played by Julie Bowen), Deanna decides to re-enroll at her old alma mater and finish her archaeology degree. The fact that her school just so happens to be the same college her daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon) attends is simply the icing on the cake. At first, Deanna sticks out like a sore thumb (she’s that mom who buys ALL the school spirit tchotchke and apparel), and of course Maddie is embarrassed to have her mother dropping by to hang at her sorority all the time. But she also realizes that her mom NEEDS this experience, and soon enough Maddie is taking her to keggers and showing her how college students live these days.
And then… there’s the obligatory makeover scene, because OBVIOUSLY Deanna can’t find success on campus while wearing rhinestone jumpers. But when Maddie takes her mom into the frat house bathroom to update her look, something wonderful happens. The jumper comes off, as do the glasses and headband. And when she emerges, Deanna looks… well, normal. Lovely. Not like a joke of a suburban mom anymore, sure. But she’s still HER. The makeover doesn’t impact her personality at all. And crucially, the students come to love her for exactly who she is — she never has to fake it to fit in.
There are the bitchy girls who sneer at her, but there’s also the campus stud who tries to woo her with fancy chardonnay. She’s got a creepy roommate who maybe/probably stares at her while she sleeps. She’s top of her archaeology class (taught by one of her old classmates, played by Chris Parnell), and Maddie’s sorority sisters want to spend time with their new bestie Dee Rock.
[It’s also worth mentioning that one sister is played by Community’s Gillian Jacobs, as an older student who enrolled in college late because of an 8-year coma. She is hysterical, and NOTHING like Britta.]
Point is: Deanna does get her groove back, but that “groove” is just her own independence, and the experience of succeeding on her own terms. Fuck me, but it was kind of beautiful.
If you’re of a mind to poke holes in the story, you’ll find plenty. Maddie gets over her own pain at the divorce and squeamishness about her mom a little too easily, because ultimately this isn’t her story. The climax centers around, like so many other college comedies, a big fundraiser party (complete with surprise musical guest). Deanna has her requisite sassy best friend providing emotional support… but when that friend is played by Maya Rudolph, it’s hard to mind. Rudolph, as usual, manages to be the MVP of the movie while still being underutilized, and if you don’t walk out hoping for a McCarthy/Rudolph buddy comedy in the near future then your heart must be a cold, dead, sad little thing inside your chest.
But even as I sat there, identifying the flaws, I couldn’t bring myself to care about them. I was too thoroughly charmed by the rest of it. Yes, you’ll anticipate almost all the story beats before the movie even starts. But the way they are handled — and the few twists along the way — make Life of the Party more than the sum of its parts. And while McCarthy is a comedic gem, her character is the heart of the movie rather than the butt of the joke.