Melissa McCarthy has cemented herself as one of our boldest and silliest comediennes.
As soon as the studio logos appear on screen for Life of the Party we hear the familiar riff of a song by Imagine Dragons, a band that has about 1,101 radio hits currently circulating the airwaves (or, at least it feels that way). It makes sense for a film like Melissa McCarthy’s latest comedy vehicle, as we’ve seen 1,101 movies exactly like this before.
Audiences are no stranger to plots concerning a middle-aged character (in this case, Deanna, played by McCarthy) who learns to reinvent their life with a new sense of purpose (in this case, returning to college to complete an archeology degree) after a major life-shattering event (in this case, an affair and subsequent divorce). This isn’t a new or revolutionary premise, nor is the fact that Deanna manages to win over everyone on campus with her infectious attitude and kind outlook on life (she’s like the Paddington Bear of middle-aged white ladies).
But, what makes Life of the Party slightly elevated above the long-forgotten midlife crisis comedies of yesteryear (remember 2003’s Bringing Down the House with Steve Martin?) is the unrivaled aggressiveness of its lead star’s comedic energy. As Melissa McCarthy has proved time and time again, through her movies as well as her phenomenal stint as Sean Spicer on “Saturday Night Live,” she’s willing to go the distance with comedy, especially the physical variety—from slapstick to gross-out to undeniably charming kinetic vigor (there’s a sequence in which McCarthy dances to the tune of Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache” where you can’t help but smile). She has cemented herself as one of our boldest and silliest comediennes, and she’s easily the crux of what makes Life of the Party as entertaining and funny as it is.
Of course, something as derivative as this isn’t without its weak spots. The script is acceptable at best, with the suspicion it may have been on the shelf for some time, and the direction offers nothing to differentiate itself from your standard studio comedy. McCarthy co-wrote Life of the Party with her husband (Ben Falcone, who also directs) and admittedly the film is miles above the quality of their first two creative collaborations (2014’s Tammy and 2016’s The Boss).
In addition to McCarthy’s contributions, the film is also raised up by an excellent cast of supporting goofballs (Maya Rudolph as Deanna’s best friend, Heidi Gardner as her strange roommate, Jacki Weaver and Stephen Root as her eccentric parents). Additionally, it manages to be far warmer than the couple’s previous efforts, especially in the relationships portrayed between Deanna and her daughter (Molly Gordon), her daughter’s sorority mates (Gillian Jacobs, Adria Arjona, Jessie Ennis) and the half-her-age frat boy (Luke Benward) she ends up hooking up with. The camaraderie and witty banter between all these characters keeps Life of the Party running at a steady speed throughout.
It’s no masterwork, obviously, but what the film does achieve is a memorable differentiation from its imitative origins. Will it be mainly forgotten in a decade? Probably. But in the present moment, it’s a worthy, laugh-filled romp (albeit 15 minutes too long) that makes the most of its inherent derivativeness.