Synopsis – After her husband abruptly asks for a divorce, a middle-aged mother returns to college in order to complete her degree.
My Take – Is it just me who feels that Melissa McCarthy led comedies have become more and more inconsistent? After becoming an overnight sensation with the 2011 film, Bridesmaids, McCarthy‘s follow up films which include the box office successes like Identity Thief, The Heat and Spy along with her widely appreciated role in the Ghostbusters remake, made sure that she became the cultural and box office phenomenon she is considered to be. However, her production and screen writing team ups with her real life husband, Ben Falcone, have resulted in not one but two terrible films in the form of Tammy and The Boss, which despite earning their respective box office have managed to put a taint on her reputation as a comic genius.
But hey, third time is the charm right? Released on Mother’s Day to cash in on the feeling of maternity, this gender swiped version of the 1986 film, Back to School, is surprisingly actually a lot better than I expected. It is your classic Melissa McCarthy film filled with physical comedy, that not offensive or radical, but just funny enough to spend a few pleasant couple of hours. It’s no masterpiece, nor is it going to change the course of humanity, but if you think a good comedy can be both outrageous and meaningful at the same time, then this Ben Falcon directed film deserves a watch especially if you are looking for a light chuckle minus the nudity.
The story follows Deanna (Melissa McCarthy), a sweet suburban mom who is overwhelmed with happiness that her only child, Maddie (Molly Gordon), is finally starting her senior year in college. However, immediately after Deanna and her husband, Dan (Matt Walsh), drop off Maddie at her sorority house, Dan informs Deanna that he wants a divorce so he can marry his mistress Marcie (Julie Bowen). Shocked by this sudden news, Deanna who leans on her parents (Stephen Root and Jacki Weaver) and her best friend Christine (Maya Rudolph) for comfort and bemoans the years wasted in her marriage, which included her dropping out of college, due to her pregnancy, just a year before earning her archaeology degree.
In an effort to restart her life, Deanna re-enrolls in her old college to complete her final year, which makes her college mates with her Maddie, who has mixed feelings about this development, especially when Deanna starts hanging out at Maddie’s sorority house. But surprisingly Maddie’s friends really like having Deanna around, which opens the door for Deanna to drink at college parties, sleep with Jack (Luke Benward), a frat boy half her age, encourage her creepy roommate, Leonor (Heidi Gardner) to be less creepy and help Maddie’s friends figure out their lives, including inspiring Maddie’s Helen (Gillian Jacobs), Debbie (Jessie Ennis), and Amanda (Adria Arjona). As all this happens, a couple mean-girl college classmates, the divorce proceedings and Dan’s impending remarriage become growing sources of frustration for Deanna, all the while looking to find her true self in the process.
Yes, the premise is quite far-fetched, improbable, just for effect, and totally for show. Basically, it’s Back To School without Thornton Melon’s money, or Legally Blonde without Elle Wood’s fashion sense. But just because it ends up exactly where you expect doesn’t mean there aren’t some pretty great surprises along the way. McCarthy and director Falcone are smart enough to assemble a solid cast of supporting players and let everyone rip into whatever happening in a given scene. The film doesn’t make any attempts at being anything other than what it presents itself to be, as every singly plot and character beat you can see a mile coming before it even happens and the film plainly glosses over some of the subplots, like that of Maddie taking more issue with the fact that her mom is now at college with her than her parents getting divorced.
But even as I sat there, identifying the flaws, I couldn’t bring myself to care about them. I was too thoroughly charmed by the rest of it. Yes, you’ll anticipate almost all the story beats before the film even starts, but the way they are handled, make the film more than the sum of its parts. Sure, the film starts off rather pretty bland, with nothing exceptionally funny and some fairly stock-standard characters, but as the film progresses we there’s more to each of the characters, with enough opportunity to promote sisterhood and feminist values. To the film’s credit, it wastes little time with Maddie being angry with her mother for cramping her style. There’s a bit of that, of course, but after her friends are instantly won over by Deanna’s infectious enthusiasm, she quickly moves on to being a supportive daughter.
The mother/daughter relationship is there, but it’s slight and McCarthy takes the responsibility of making these scenes feel more genuine. With that out of the way the stage is set for cross-generational bonding, and the film’s most heartfelt message is about what women can accomplish when they stick together. Admittedly, its admirable messages about the bonds of sisterhood are undercut slightly by the script shoehorning in a pair of bullying mean girls and making Dan’s new partner a realtor snob, but for the most part, the film aims for a tone of gentle niceness. There aren’t that many laugh out loud moments but I did find the humor to work at sometimes whereas the other previous Falcone directed films were devoid of any.
Although not every scene or line evokes hilarity, many are spot on in part because McCarthy has the timing to make almost any joke effective, but also because honesty and truth underlie almost every setup. For example, when McCarthy showcases her extended, non-sequitur comedy, as Deanna with her fear of speaking in front of a class, begins to sweaty-pit dread to phlegmatic panic to total, collapsing bodily rejection. There are also three scenes in particular in the film that are gut-bustingly funny all in large part to McCarthy’s Bridesmaids co-star Maya Rudolph. Sure, parts of the film are like a female Animal House, with McCarthy getting drunk and rediscovering sex while embarrassing her daughter and bonding with her sorority sisters, but the heart of the film is not this raucous comedy, it’s about McCarthy the den mother empowering her brood of beautiful but vulnerable younger sorority sisters.
Even when she receives a complete makeover, her personality doesn’t change, and crucially, the students come to love her for exactly who she is, and never has to fake it to fit in. There’s an appealing sweetness to the film’s brand of wish-fulfillment comedy, and McCarthy is always a joy to watch. But as good as she is, we’re not seeing the actress really stretch herself, and her efforts are undercut by some rambling tone. What makes the film all the more frustrating is that, just like Tammy and The Boss before, McCarthy herself co-wrote the script, along with director Falcone, this film too feel oddly timid as it showcases a brash side of McCarthy, all in a willingness to do more than she can chew. In contrast, director Paul Feig, who has given the actress some of her best roles, in films like Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy, and Ghostbusters, has always managed to use her full potential. Also, why did the film feel need to have an unrealistic mean/ bully named Jennifer (Debby Ryan) here, aren’t their enough distractions already.
Despite the slumps, Melissa McCarthy charms. McCarthy, when given a chance to shine in roles, really goes all out. While this film might not be her best film, but it is enjoyable at her face value, even while playing into some on-the-nose clichés and tropes throughout. McCarthy manages to carry the film with her charm and a do it attitude that helps move along. Maya Rudolph is a standout, despite being underutilized and her over-the-top deliveries truly work in scenes where everything is relatively tame in comparison. Gillian Jacobs (Community) is also a hoot. Her sarcastic attitude, optimism, and lingering cognitive impairment was absolutely delightful and managed to keep a number of the scenes afloat. There’s amusing, supporting work here from Matt Walsh, Julie Bowen, Heidi Gardner, Molly Gordon, Luke Benward, Adria Arjona, Jessie Ennis, Jacki Weaver and Stephen Root. On the whole, ‘Life of the Party‘ is a mostly harmless, inoffensive and fun comedy bolster by its central performance.
Directed – Ben Falcone
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 100 minutes