As karmic balance for running over Melissa McCarthy with a car in “Tammy,” director Ben Falcone starts “Life of the Party” chauffeuring his comedian wife in an Uber. A minute before, her character Deanna was dropping off daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon) at a sorority house for her senior year of college when Deanna’s husband of 23 years, Dan (Matt Walsh), announced he wants a divorce to marry his mistress (Julie Bowen). McCarthy’s sweatshirt-bedazzled homemaker is crushed, but instead of this big, broad comedy mocking her misery, Falcone looks her in the eye and beams, “You’re such a great lady, Deanna.” With that, the five-star-rated fairy godfather speeds out of the movie, having set the tone for a pleasant adventure about Deanna’s re-enrollment in college to finish her own degree — the movie equivalent in these R-rated gross-out days of swaggering up to the frat party bar and ordering a chardonnay, which she does.
“Life of the Party” is stubbornly nice. What a surprise. Too often, McCarthy’s been typecast as the butt of the joke, even when her husband’s behind the camera and she’s co-written the script (as she also does here). Her best roles in the Paul Feig movies “Bridesmaids” and “Spy” find her parrying judgments and charging past rejection until she proves her worth. This is a heartier celebration of McCarthy’s talents, a mash note to a comic who can also play flirtatious, empathetic, and human. She’s believable, even if the scenes setting-off her performance aren’t.
When Deanna strides onto the dance floor of an ’80s costume bash in Dynasty-inspired sequins to grind to the Sugarhill Gang, she’s fabulous. A hunky young student named Jack (Luke Benward) is infatuated: “What a woman.” Even her walk-of-shame from his room is more like a giggling strut — less so for Maddie, whose own boyfriend (Jimmy O. Yang) bunks across the hall.
Besides the audience wondering if this entire comedy can be fueled on sugar — mostly, yes — there’s little suspense. Can Deanna finish her archeology degree before her ex-husband’s support payments run out? Of course. Must we fret that she’ll accept Jack’s offer to throw away her education — again — to backpack across Europe? Mais non! Even her goth roommate Leonor (SNL’s Heidi Gardner), a vampire who never leaves their dorm, is cleanly and charmingly defanged. “You like to dig up stuff, I like to bury stuff,” nods Leonor. They can coexist.
To the film’s credit, it doesn’t drag out Maddie’s annoyance that her mother is squatting on her senioritis — no need to swap one lead harpy for another. The girl sighs and attempts to shuffle Deanna out of her sorority house, but quickly gives in to her friends’ insistence that hanging out with her mom is totally dope, even if her mom chases shots of tequila with toasts to equal pay, cleaner oceans, “and full maternity leave for non-gender specific working parents!”
The most nerve-wracking scene is simply watching Deanna give an oral presentation with extreme stage fright that triggers her to sweat through her clothes. Once again, instead of Falcone elbowing us to sneer at her pit stains like the film’s one over-the-top snob (played with zest by Debby Ryan), he aligns us with Deanna’s friend and classmate Helen (Gillian Jacobs), who stares down the haters and cheers her buddy on. Jacobs’ Helen is a weirdo herself, a local legend who spent eight years in a coma (hence her own age gap) and has emerged mainly to shade a quietly deranged humor into the margins of the film. Jacobs is always hilarious, but here she’s embracing the kind of Kate McKinnon-style surrealism where she gets laughs just from her pronunciation of “candle.”
There’s a makeover, of course (gotta get Deanna into skinny denim even though, ironically, mom jeans are on trend), plus an accidental drug bacchanal and a slow-motion destruction spree — the holy trinity of modern humor. More inspired scenes pair McCarthy with Maya Rudolph and invite the two longtime friends to dominate everything from a mediation session to a racquetball court to a suffocating dinner with their older friends who act their age — and worse, the ones who don’t and show up at the restaurant with awkward new ear piercings.
McCarthy’s Deanna isn’t changing herself for the world, it’s making room for her, and if “Life of the Party’s” sparkling arc from sad acoustic guitars to Christina Aguilera anthems has any serious intention, she and Falcone want to salute the wonders women can accomplish when they band together. What Deanna contributes on her magical journey is her certainty that these girls will become incredible women — and her insistence that they should seize their powers now. McCarthy sees their potential. Glad Hollywood finally sees hers.