It’s tempting to dismiss the cheery and heartfelt Life of the Party as an unofficial, politically correct, female-led remake of Back to School and leave it at that. Indeed, the premise sounds the same: a parent enrolls in college to help their child graduate and comic shenanigans ensue.
Very early on, however, Life of the Party makes clear that it’s taking a different approach, which bolsters its attempt to establish its own identity. In fashioning a third personal star vehicle, Melissa McCarthy and her creative collaborator Ben Falcone have taken pains to ensure that the lead role is immediately more likable and sympathetic, making it easy to empathize with her throughout this rather light comedy.
Deanna (McCarthy) and her husband Dan (Matt Welsh) drop their daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon) off at college at the beginning of her senior year. It’s apparent that Deanna and Maddie have a close, loving relationship, and she’s sad when they depart, but they’re barely inches away before Dan blurts off to Deanna that he wants a divorce.
It seems that Dan has fallen in love with a realtor named Marcie (Julie Bowen), and so he naturally wants to sell the family home right away, which throws Deanna for a big loop. Before she could complete her final year of college, Dan urged her to drop out of school because she was pregnant with Maddie. The agreeable and supportive Deanna did just that, so after some hilarious soul-searching with her parents (Stephen Root and Jacki Weaver) and her best friend Christine (a hilarious, scene-stealing Maya Rudolph), she decides to return to her alma mater and get her degree in archeology.
Initially, this does not sit well with Maddie, who is already accustomed to the college life and wants to enjoy her final year with her friends Helen (Gillian Jacobs), Jennifer (Debby Ryan) and Amanda (Adria Arjona), as well as her boyfriend Tyler (Jimmy O. Yang). Soon enough, however, Maddie realizes that her mother is more than a bit lost, despite her perpetually positive attitude, and is far too quick to subjugate her own desires in order for other people to have their way.
Maddie has learned this, and she is too much for mother’s daughter not to catch on (eventually) to what her mother is doing. She is then motivated to be more proactive in helping her mother to get the most out of her college year; her friends, too, quickly adapt to having a middle-aged woman around to lean upon.
McCarthy has a far wider acting range than Rodney Dangerfield in Back to School, yet eventually Life of the Party falls victim to script and tonal issues, leaving too many conflicts to be resolved in too short a period of time, which then prompts the tone to lurch unsteadily from comedy to drama.
Frankly, it’s more than a bit of a mess, and serves as a reminder that the film, overall, struggles to prove itself to be more than a simple, if pleasing, time-killer comedy. Still, as the problems are ironed out neatly, with more starch than needed, Life of the Party keeps waving its cheery, self-empowerment flag, signaling its good and true intentions, which may be enough to justify the price of a movie ticket.
It did for me.
Life of the Party opens today in theaters throughout Dallas.