Melissa McCarthy Champions Sisterhood in College Comedy ‘Life of the Party’

Melissa McCarthy, a beloved comedic talent who won over audiences several times over playing an array of outcasts and weirdos, steps into one of her most relatable roles to date in “Life of the Party.” McCarthy stars as Deanna, a homemaker who sacrificed her professional goals to raise a family. McCarthy co-wrote the script with the film’s director, Ben Falcone, a frequent collaborator who also happens to be her husband of 13 years. While McCarthy has enjoyed a successful and mutually supportive marriage, Deanna is less lucky, as she is blindsided when her husband of 23 years, Dan (the underrated Matt Walsh playing against type as the chief villain) announces that he is leaving her for a local real estate lady, Marcie (Julie Bowen). After she burns a bunch of his crap and her anger subsides, Deanna sees this as an opportunity to start over and finally finish the college degree she put on hold after she became pregnant with her daughter, Maddie (Molly Gordon), now a senior at the same college she returns to, Decatur. Instead of the night class, continuing education route one would expect her to take, Deanna immerses herself in the full college experience, even moving into the dorms. Surprisingly, after an initial sense of dread that she does her best to suppress, Maddie is all for her mom’s new path, but neither bargain for the zany journey that ensues, one that involves Mom and daughter downing tequila shots together and crossing paths during walks of shame.

College films, not unlike the real experience, contain colorful characters, and “Life of the Party” is no exception, as Deanna finds herself rooming with shut-in Lenor (Heidi Gardner), a goth girl who finds in Deanna the best friend she never knew she needed. Deanna also finds a kindred spirit in Helen (Gillian Jacobs), a fellow “mature” student whose being in an eight-year coma accounts for the gap in her studies. But the real fun is to be had with Jack (Luke Benward), the dreamboat frat brother of Maddie’s own boyfriend (Jimmy O. Yang), and some of the funniest scenes come out of his infatuation with Deanna, one that leads to a satisfying twist.

The other adults also get to have their fun, especially Christine (a sublime Maya Rudolph), Deanna’s best friend who steals scenes with her inability to not give a you-know-what. In one memorable scene, she successfully entices her husband by showing off a foot clad in both a thick sock and flip flop. There are also some hilarious scenes involving Deanna and Dan’s less than amicable divorce, a process that Marcie inserts herself in, the takeaway here being that Deanna isn’t being deprived of anything stepping away from the “adult” world; she’s better off in the company of the more evolved Maddie and her supportive sorority sisters.

“Life of the Party” isn’t exactly a cutting-edge comedy. The premise isn’t groundbreaking, and a cameo from Christina Aguilera (performing a hit song from 2002, no less) hardly adds any freshness. The film, like so many comedies released today, also has some pacing issues, as multiple dialogue-heavy scenes drag. However, it contains plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, and themes pertaining to female empowerment and solidarity come in loud and clear, messages that particularly resonate in the current climate.

The heart of “Life of the Party” is the relationship between Deanna and Maddie. Unlike a lot of comedies that center around mothers and daughters, there is very little antagonism between the two, no cliched eye rolling or nagging, and McCarthy and Gordon are very natural together.

Life of the Party” opens May 11 nationwide.