Like an overcrowded frat house kegger that breaks municipal fire codes, “Life of the Party” refuses to adhere to the basic storytelling guidelines but remains a joy none-the-less. The film’s heart is rooted in an anti-“Back to School” mentality, reversing the staunch Rodney Dangerfield stance that rubbing elbows with your laughable parent in lectures is not a mega embarrassment but a valuable magna cum-laude life lesson.
That transition makes sense, considering McCarthy’s character Deanna is less of a straight-up Dangerfield but more a cocktail of Belushi and Ferrell adult college archetypes. She’s not afraid to let loose and beer bong with her early-twenties daughter Maddie (Molly Ryan) but has brought enough Advil and bottled water in her tote bag to soothe them for the gripping hangover the next day. Seconds after dropping off Maddie for her senior year, Deanna is hit with a divorce plea from her husband Dan (Matt Walsh). To cope with the emotional hangup, Deanna enrolls herself at Maddie’s college to finish her degree.
The first 15-20 minutes are rough, no more entertaining than a mandatory anti-drug lecture during freshman orientation. But when Deanna gets settled with her class list and Hot Topic-devoted roomie Leonor (Heidi Gardner), the film feels confident to replace Deanna as the crux of the comedy with Maddie’s circle of friends. They’re a pack of sorority sisters still cool enough to be socially tapped-in to university going-on’s, but oddball enough that their personalities keep the collegiate conversations going beyond the standard, “Ugh I am soooo slammed with midterms ” and “Are you going home over Thanksgiving break?”
It’s a risky approach to take, given McCarthy’s gifted nature to absorb laughs through photosynthesis from the spotlight. But McCarthy holds no reservations from passing her funny plates to the lively, formerly-comatose Helen (Gillian Jacobs), the self-doubting but beautiful-facing Amanda (Adria Arjona), and Debbie (Jessie Ennis), a one-liner machine whose ginger hair is probably the result of too much sunlight from having her head up in the clouds all day long.
These women generate a palpable aura of optimism, even when they’re dealing with bratty classmates and beleaguered beaus. Like Debbie’s relatively useless kinesiology degree, we find ourselves proud of Deanna even though “Life of the Party” loses sight of what she’s driving to or why. The central conflict is Deanna supposedly getting over her husband dropping out of their marriage and finding herself, but that A story feels like background noise to a parade of B and C-level gags. How Deanna actually pays for college is conveniently ignored until it can be shoehorned in as a last-minute plot device. The film mostly hits the right marks by not making Deanna and Maddie into an adversarial odd couple, but as their relationship grows and develops, there’s not enough speed bumps to make the trip feel worthwhile.
But “Life of the Party” still feels like a more realistic and earnest portrayal of college life where not everyone is a douchey frat bro or a bratty sorority sister, a newer time when professors aren’t curmudgeons but relatively friendly. The roommates will always be creepy, but at least “Life of the Party’s” won’t murder you in your sleep. While we occasionally look back in the film wondering what this is all for, “Life of the Party’s” confidence and giggly glee softly brings us back, reminding us that there is no better time than the now.