Movie Review: Melissa McCarthy goes back to college in ‘Life of the Party’

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Life of the Party' (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — Melissa McCarthy is a cosmic gift to comedy in the 21st century in the way that Jerry Lewis, Steve Martin or Robin Williams were to our funny bones decades earlier.

We’ve cried tears of laughter in movies from “Bridesmaids” to “The Heat,” not to mention her hilarious spoof of Sean “Spicy” Spicer at a motorized press podium on “Saturday Night Live.”

This weekend, she pulls a Rodney Dangerfield and goes back to school in the new comedy “Life of the Party,” which draws its laughs more from its talented cast than from its formulaic script, treating us to an enjoyable date night but something far from a comedy classic.

The story follows Deanna (McCarthy), a dedicated housewife who drops her daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon) off at college. Before they even leave the campus, her husband (Matt Walsh) announces that he wants a divorce, causing a midlife crisis for Deanna, who decides to finish her college degree. There’s just one catch: She’s in the same graduating class as her daughter.

Let’s start with the positives. McCarthy is such a gifted physical comedian that the film is a delight just watching her elevate the material single-handedly. She shines in little acting choices — kicking and opening her husband’s car door after he asks for the divorce — and larger slapstick moments, sweating profusely during an oral presentation with tissues stuck to her face before collapsing like Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939).

Perhaps even more impressive is the sympathetic nature of her performance. We’ve seen her show dramatic range before (i.e. “St. Vincent”), but her repeated trysts with college hunk Jack (Luke Benward) come across as adorable rather than zany — and that’s a big compliment.

As for the supporting cast, Maya Rudolph steals the show, hurting her lady parts during a game of racquetball and rooting for her best friend at a restaurant rendezvous. As she lifts her sock-and-sandal foot onto the countertop to seduce her husband (Damon Jones), he delivers the movie’s best line: “The last time you tried that we got thrown out of Six Flags.”

The most creative scene comes when Rudolph joins McCarthy at her divorce hearing, sitting across the table from her husband (Matt Walsh, “Veep”) and his real estate mistress (Julie Bowen, “Modern Family”). As the divorce counselor insists they look at her the entire time, the two warring parties must hurl insults at people they’re not even looking at. It’s quite funny.

Rounding out the cast is the charming Chris Parnell (“SNL”) as a professor making archaeology puns; Debby Ryan and Yani Smone as a pair of stuck-up mean girls; Heidi Gardner as McCarthy’s goth dorm roommate; and Jessie Ennis, Adria Arjona and Gillian Jacobs as Maddie’s sorority sisters, the latter of which has re-enrolled after eight years in a coma.

Sadly wasted are the great Jacki Weaver (“Silver Linings Playbook”) and Stephen Root (“Office Space”) as McCarthy’s protective parents. Their introduction scene starts off hilarious, cursing the schmuck that’s divorcing their daughter. But as Root whips out a gun, you can tell that director Ben Falcone is going for a comedy crescendo like the “We’ve got a bleeder” intro in “There’s Something About Mary” (1998), only we’re no longer laughing as the scene ends.

As you know, Falcone is married to McCarthy. And yet, for some reason, the movies they write together — “Tammy” (2014) and “The Boss” (2016) — are never as funny as the ones she does with Paul Feig — “Bridesmaids” (2009), “The Heat” (2013) and “Spy” (2015). Perhaps there’s something to be said for an objective outside voice telling you “Don’t” rather than “I do.”

Whatever the reason, the dialogue of “Life of the Party” is better than the plot, which is pretty predictable. There are several moments where you’ll whisper to the person next to you: “He’s gonna divorce her,” “She’s gonna enroll with her daughter,” “She’s gonna hook up with that frat boy.” There is, however, one juicy twist that rivals the killer surprise in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” (2017), a nice moment that very few people in the theater will see coming.

Such surprises don’t happen enough, as the situations borrow heavily from “Animal House” (1978), “Back to School” (1986), “Billy Madison” (1995) and “Old School” (2003). Your brain will go on audience autopilot from one gimmick to the next. Yes, there are even the clichéd pot brownies, only in this case it’s pot bark where the bark is bigger than the comedic bite.

By the time Christina Aguilera shows up to save the day, the genie’s already out of the bottle. As she sings “Fighter,” you’ll wish the script was “a little bit stronger.” Don’t worry, there are still enough laugh-out-loud moments to make “Life of the Party” a fun date night for the week; just don’t be surprised if your relationship lasts much longer than your memories of this flick.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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