Why ‘LIFE OF THE PARTY’ is more subversive & celebratory than you’d think

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

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

The college experience has long been a favored stomping ground in cinema, and it shows no sign of slowing down. University life has been portrayed in myriad ways, whether it be John Blutarsky leading a toga revolution in ANIMAL HOUSE, or Lambda Lambda Lambda overtaking the campus in REVENGE OF THE NERDS, or “Frank the Tank” proclaiming he’s going streaking in OLD SCHOOL, or “Droz” throwing an epic house party with George Clinton and the Parliment-Funkadelic in PCU, or a Playboy Bunny playing house mom in THE HOUSE BUNNY. What makes these films stand out are the innovative ways the characters interact with the backdrop. Even NEIGHBORS and its sequel found a refreshing change to the typical trappings of the raucous, raunchy genre.

Co-writer/ director Ben Falcone’s LIFE OF THE PARTY is a sweeter, more subversive take on BACK TO SCHOOL, capturing campus carousing in a feminist, sex-positive, hilarious, empowering, vibrant light. Its disarming charm is found not only in co-writer/ star/ force of nature Melissa McCarthy’s radiant performance, but also within the uplifting, spirited, narrative, which puts female friendship and agency at the forefront. Laugh-out-loud funny with loads of heart, this makes for an absolute must-see in the pantheon of pictures about higher learning.

Deanna (McCarthy, who literally and figuratively sparkles in this role) has just dropped her daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon) off at college, when hubby Dan (Matt Walsh) springs a divorce on her. She’s barely had a moment to deal with being an empty nester, let alone now forced to be labelled a lonely divorcee. He’s already seeing someone – haughty real estate agent Marcie (Julie Bowen) – and sold their home out from under her. With little to no options and no longer wanting to wallow, Deanna decides to go back to school to finish her degree – the same school Maddie is attending. It’s there where our plucky protagonist has to contend with goth roommate Lenor (Heidi Gardner) and mean girl Jennifer (Debby Ryan). But with a little help from her hyperbolic bestie Christine (Maya Rudolph, whose comedic chops shine in this mini-BRIDESMAIDS reunion) and her daughter’s sorority sisters, Deanna begins to find her way – even picking up a new and improved identity.

Melissa McCarthy, Molly Gordon, and Jessie Ennis in LIFE OF THE PARTY. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.

Compared to other college comedies that typically feature a slacker, goof-off male protagonist, Falcone and McCarthy’s story subverts audience expectation. It spotlights a wholesome, kind, intelligent woman who can, when called upon, act like a goofball. It’s an astute observation by the filmmakers, differentiating between the two traits. Same goes for Maddie and her friends – dim-witted Debbie (Jessie Ennis), “coma girl” Helen (Gillian Jacobs) and naive Amanda (Adria Arjona). They are free to get nuts, unwittingly ingesting drugs and participating in vengeful destruction, but are never portrayed as total screw-ups. These gals aren’t the stereotypical stuck-up sorority sisters we normally see on screen. Giving Deanna a sweet, albeit clingy, frat boy hookup (Luke Benward) not only shakes up the sub-genre’s norms, but also bucks traditional May-December romances in cinema. Another encouraging aspect is that Deanna’s makeover is all about using what’s already there, transforming her from a Bedazzled Mid-Western mom, to “Dee-Rock,” a chic collegiate.

What conflict is here isn’t about defeating the mean girl, or Deanna obnoxiously ruining her child’s life, or (in terms of the genre) fighting some sort of collegiate authority, but rather wrestling with inner demons and crippling self-doubt. For example, Deanna has a paralyzing fear of public speaking (which leads to an uproariously elongated “so awkwardly long it’s funny” speech), and Debbie voices lots of uncertainties about her major. The filmmakers also take great pains to never show Deanna lowering herself to her bully’s level. She combats negativity with her playful spirit. While the narrative tends to be predictable (a quality seemingly inherent to any feel-good comedy of its ilk), the filmmakers rather adeptly show that sisterhood and female friendship are the healthy keys to success. That’s a heartening message to see demonstrated in a film about a woman finding her voice and independence.

Despite some hiccups here and there, the picture feels strikingly progressive and enlightened. It paves a new avenue for how filmmakers can put good into the universe – and breathe life into a tired party.

LIFE OF THE PARTY opens on May 11.

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