Bringing your mom to a college party might not help your street cred – unless your mother is Melissa McCarthy. Changing things up from her usual, raucous roles, the actress plays a soft spoken mother, who uses words like biscuits to describe her breasts and definitely never curses. She is the type of caring mother that her daughter actually wants to spend time with, even after enrolling at the same college. Like any wacky mother-daughter duos, they go to frat parties together. “Life of the Party” offers a softer, gentler direction for the actress, and hopefully it’s the start of a new career direction for her.
Deanna’s life is flipped, turned upside down when, right after dropping their daughter off for her senior year of college, her husband promptly announces that he wants a divorce and has been seeing a local realtor (“Modern Family” star Julie Bowen, finally unleashing her inner ice queen). Rather than just wallowing in self-pity, Deanna quickly decides to make some life changes, including going back to school to finish her archeology degree. Since she no longer has a home, it makes perfect sense for her to just move into the dorms, right?
Make no mistake that this is McCarthy’s film. She’s in nearly every frame and whether it works or not hinges on your reaction to her. For those who aren’t normally huge fans, this could be an eye-opening experience. Exchanging her usual boisterous onscreen persona for something softer is a nice change of pace. The added layers to her onscreen persona that haven’t been seen much since her tenure on television shows, like “Gilmore Girls” and “Samantha Who.”
One of the best things about “Life of the Party” is the sisterhood between both the sorority sisters and between Deanna and her daughter, Maddie. Many films end up pitting the female characters against each other. Except for the resident mean girl – who you can identity solely because she’s the only one with teased hair – the female characters support each other throughout.
Unlike the previous collaborations between McCarthy, who also co-wrote the film with husband Ben Falcone, who also directed it, the film isn’t strictly low-brow entertainment. Both “Tammy” and “The Boss” features the comedienne in roles that often times left her as the butt of the jokes with humor that consisted of most obvious, low-hanging fruit jokes. Here, the pair has created a story that is worth multiple viewings because it’s guaranteed that you will miss some of the jokes due to the laughter in the theater. They’ve kept the physical comedy that she excels at, but have grounded it to have a more personal feel to it.
Backing up McCarthy is a deep bench of “Saturday Night Live” performers, past and present. Maya Rudolph, who is pretty much perfect in almost everything, is Deanna’s boozy best friend. Heidi Gardner, a current break-out cast member, plays Deanna’s shut-in roommate while Chris Parnell plays her professor. None of them have huge roles, but they steal the show in all their scenes. Not even a cameo by Christina Aguilera can dull the shine of Rudolph and Gardner.
The only downside to the film is that you are either going to buy into the premise and go along for the ride, or you are going to be out right from the get-go. There are several giant leaps of logic and a suspension of reality that you have to overcome with the film, but it is worth it. At its center is a touching, fun film that just so happens to play fast and loose with how things might actually unfold in real life.
College films can be a tricky nut to crack. For every “The House Bunny” there’s a handful of “Sorority Boys.” But what McCarthy and Falcone have done is craft a comedy about a woman rediscovering herself that just so happens to be set on a college campus. The film’s message is all about girl power and lifting each other up, rather than tearing each other down. As such, the comedy doesn’t come from a place that undermines the characters, but rather from their character traits. In the end, “Life of the Party” is more fun in less than two hours than spending a whole evening at a frat party with stale beer.