Movie Review: Melissa McCarthy gets her groove back in college comedy ‘LIFE OF THE PARTY’

Jared McMillan // Film Critic

LIFE OF THE PARTY

Rated PG-13, 105 minutes.
Director: Ben Falcone
Cast: Melissa McCarthyGillian JacobsDebby RyanAdria ArjonaJulie Bowen and Stephen Root

Melissa McCarthy gets a bad rap. Maybe it has to do with the taste of comedy ever changing with the increase of cynicism in society. Or it might have to do with the constant portrayal of the same haphazard type of character. Or is it just a matter of her type of awkward, physical comedy being better off in a supporting role, like her Oscar-nominated role in BRIDESMAIDS? Still, it takes an impressive amount of commitment and gusto to constantly go to that well, whether it hits (SPY and THE HEAT) or misses (IDENTITY THIEF, TAMMY and THE BOSS).

The key, it seems, is to have something genuine in her characters — a grounded personality that reacts to the environment around her, rather than outright causing chaos. Self-chemistry, you could call it. A grounded character absorbing new experiences that causes an excited state, in both the protagonist and the audience. With LIFE OF THE PARTY, McCarthy’s newest collaboration with husband and director Ben Falcone, it seems she finds that perfect balance to create a winning formula.

Deanna (McCarthy) has her world shattered when her husband, Dan (Matt Walsh), tells her that he’s been having an affair and wants a divorce. She’s done everything right, been the perfect wife and mom, and all for naught. Her parents (Jacki Weaver and Stephen Root) are quick to point out that she dropped out of school with one year left because she was pregnant, and they could only afford Dan to finish school. So, Deanna enrolls in her old alma mater, where her daughter (Molly Gordon) is finishing her senior year.

Melissa McCarthy and Deby Ryan in LIFE OF THE PARTY. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.

On paper, LIFE OF THE PARTY shouldn’t work as well as it does. The trailers make it look like a ho-hum comedy with a lukewarm, rehashed premise. The main character has a midlife crisis and crashes her kid’s life to learn more about herself. However, it doesn’t go in that direction. The story wears its heart on its sleeve because Deanna, or Deedee as her friends will call her, knows who she is as a person. Instead of it being some middle-of-the-road comedy, or falling into a rom-com trope, it stays the route of a college movie. The point is her graduation, with everything coming into view on this path.

McCarthy and Falcone are smart to keep Deanna genuine, with the cast of characters around her a little more on the fringe. Whether it’s her longtime best friend Christine (Maya Rudolph) constantly hyperbolic in support of Deanna, or her new best friend in college Helen (Gillian Jacobs), who is still mentally feeling the effects of awaking from an 8-year coma. The humor comes from a personal interaction and the reaction to Deanna’s positivity and self-assurance. Of course, the physical humor comes into frame here and there, but it’s sparse, which allows for a better impact for the audience.

It’s by no means a perfect movie. Gordon comes off a little vanilla as Deanna’s daughter, and the third act comes off as feeling rushed, but it doesn’t hinder the overall experience. The audience will have a good time, because we can’t help but root for Deedee as she works to achieve a goal that marks her independence. LIFE OF THE PARTY is hilarious and heartfelt and will hopefully prove to be a solid study for McCarthy’s characters in the future.

Grade: B+

LIFE OF THE PARTY opens Friday nationwide.

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