Forgive me, self-assigned arbiters of taste, but I’m about to lay one on you: Life of the Party, for all it’s simplistic script-flipping, is kinda great. At the very least, it’s a pleasant ride and doesn’t ask to be anything else.
The first few minutes of the movie are absolutely devastating, necessarily so to move the jerry-built plot along: Melissa McCarthy, Life of the Party’s all too endearing lead, plays Deanna Miles, a lovable homemaker complete with pastel pink, bedazzled “proud mom” sweatshirt. She’s dropping her daughter Maddie Miles (portrayed by Molly Gordon) at a sorority house at the fictional Decatur University for her senior year of undergrad. Maddie’s father and Deanna’s husband Mike (Matt Walsh) is short and unaffectionate with both of them, and they pay little mind until Deanna says goodbye to her daughter, climbs into the family minivan, sentimentalizing over the experience. She begins to discuss the empty nesting couple’s upcoming month-long trip to Italy and, in that second, Mike reveals he wants a divorce—four words uttered before they’re even out of the sorority’s driveway, with their daughter less than 100 feet away.
The moment serves to set up the mostly mindless film’s undercurrent of misandry, a surprising treat given the genre—a throwback ’80s flick where someone (a man) much older than 22 goes back to school to fulfill a long abandoned dream of a Bachelors of Arts degree while doing some sexy youths in the process. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is, both in the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield flick Back to School, where RD goes, well, back to school to motivate his apathetic son (Keith Gordon) to finish up (but also some other stuff about family and love and whatever) and in a million other movies since, I don’t know, the problematic and adored Adam Sandler film Billy Madison? (Minor plot spoilers ahead.)
The premise isn’t new, but Life of the Party’s presentation is delightful, successful in that this isn’t a literal remake of some beloved film starring women—a newly popularized form that often reads like non-men aren’t treated with agency, so the only stories we get to tell are the ones men before us wrote into canon. Alternatively, this movie takes a well-known trope and makes it McCarthy’s own.
And yet, it’s still stupid! And silly! But Life of the Party, at its core, is really a loving depiction of a mid-life crisis, enduring friendships and the perseverance of moms. (As an aside: It did absolutely nothing to stimulate my tear ducts, surely, that I watched this film at a theater in a part of South Brooklyn dense with families, on Mother’s Day, next to a single father and his family who I was absolutely not eavesdropping on.)
The majority of the movie’s comedy is slapstick, yet only partially insufferable—there’s a particularly painful scene in which Deanna and her best friend Christine Davenport (Maya Rudolph) sit across from Mike and his new fiancé. Did I mention that this shitty daddy was cheating on sweet D the entire time? He and Deanna are getting ready to officially sign the divorce papers and something resembling humor ensues...and ensues far too long—multiple jokes about pretending they’re in court but they’re not in court? That’s it. That’s the gag.
If you can fully detach yourself from scenes that are far too ridiculous and heavy-handed to be real, you’ll find some redeeming characters. For example, the gang of girls who Maddie surrounds herself with are dope as hell. Gillian Jacobs plays Helen, an undergraduate student pushing 30 after spending nearly a decade in a coma, a fact that has made her a social media celebrity; and Debby Ryan, the former Disney star plays a gorgeous-yet-unpopular bully, who, as Deanna so articulately illustrates, hates other women for no apparent reason but learns to love her lady friends. They are charming extras, and make for the most memorable moments.
In this post-adolescent universe, in this fictional Midwestern university (I’ve chosen to believe it’s Decatur, Illinois, and not Georgia), young women are fully self-assured and selfless, ready and willing to embrace Deanna as she works through her divorce and lost sense of identity. That shit is pretty magical, even when delivered through a slew of cougar-humor and vagina jokes.
Life of the Party is currently in theaters.