Melissa McCarthy is a hilarious physical comedienne. She’s also remarkably effective at being genuinely sympathetic. You can laugh at her and cry with her. Her latest movie, Life of the Party, excels in its most extreme moments, when McCarthy is being funny or sad. Unfortunately, there are a lot of shenanigans in between that do not achieve the same satisfying result. Don’t get me wrong, it’s harmless and entertaining; but, it’s just not very consistent.
McCarthy plays Deanna, a college dropout whose husband, Dan (Matt Walsh), asks for a divorce on the day they deposit their daughter, Maddie (Molly Gordon) at Decatur University for her senior year. Her life suddenly in disrepair, she decides to go back to school to get the archeology degree she never finished. Aforementioned shenanigans ensue, accompanying Deanna through the steps and missteps of her midlife crisis.
While not terribly original, Life of the Party isn’t entirely predictable. I would have expected Deanna to have a fling with her professor, played by Chris Parnell. The most that evolves from that relationship, however, is that she becomes his favorite student. That doesn’t mean there’s no romance for her, though. In fact, what seems at first like a ridiculous encounter, actually becomes one of the movie’s best running gags, with a big, unexpected payoff.
Supporting casts are critical in comedies like these, and Life of the Party has a good one. Maya Rudolph is funniest as Christine, Deanna’s best friend. We’ve seen versions of her character numerous times, but it really fits here. A close second is Saturday Night Live newcomer Heidi Gardner as Leonor, Deanna’s roommate. Although she at first seems like a one-note character, she provides another unexpected payoff before the end credits roll.
Not everyone fares as well. As Helen, a sorority sister of Maddie’s, Gillian Jacobs is constantly mugging in front of the camera. At first, it’s unsettling. I thought she was mocking Deanna and was going to turn out to be a “bad guy.” But it continues throughout the movie and simply becomes annoying. I’m also not fond of the increasingly cartoonish characters that Jacki Weaver is portraying. Here, she’s Deanna’s sandwich-obsessed mother.
Normally, I frown upon comedies that run past 90 minutes. However, at 105 minutes, Life of the Party clips along at a good pace and never seems too long. As I mentioned, it’s completely harmless and mostly entertaining. I wouldn’t normally characterize it as a “chick flick,” but I do have to say that the women at the screening I attended were having a lot more fun with it than I did, not that I didn’t have my share of belly laughs, as well.