Fun in a completely predictable, by-the-numbers way, “Life of the Party” is the newest comedy from Melissa McCarthy and her husband/director/co-screenwriter Ben Falcone. While it’s not groundbreaking, innovative work, it’s not a complete waste of downtime.
The tone is amiable, the characters are simple but consistently goofy, and its core idea — a newly divorced mother joins her daughter at college to complete her own unfinished degree — is one we haven’t seen in a while. A studio could spend a good deal more on a film stocked with veteran name actresses and get a comedy a lot worse.
McCarthy pays Deanna, a kindhearted midlife frump. As she drops off her daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon) on campus at the start of her senior year, she buries the girl with kisses and hugs that are empowering but also a bit obsessive. But it’s fortunate that the relationship is sound, because before her SUV is back on the road, Deanna is blindsided by an abrupt sayonara from her husband, Dan (Matt Walsh). When the shock waves clear, she decides to finish her incomplete degree at her alma mater, entering Maddie’s classes and sorority.
While this sounds like a recipe for disaster, Maddie doesn’t feel much chagrin. She loves her mom. Her fellow students happily adopt Deanna as the house den mother, appreciating her lame pun humor, grown-up life lessons and hopeful optimism. They escort her around, give her a cool makeover and just the right shade of lipstick, and soon enough she’s partying down with them as “Dee Rock,” the break dancing queen.
The down-on-her-luck, ordinary woman meets handsome frat boy Jack (Luke Benward). He thinks she’s aged like fine wine, and though he doesn’t know a lot about wine, he’s eager to learn. Soon he’s following her around like a lovesick puppy. This leads to some walks of shame from Jack’s house (or the library stacks), except she isn’t too ashamed.
Nor is the film, which avoids the obvious negative implications, making the cross-generational connection seem so hot and yet so cool. McCarthy plays that kind of scene with enough style, confidence and wit to pitch the jokes past the straight men, and the film is an example of her doing what she does best.
If “Life of the Party” were utterly focused on bawdy horseplay it couldn’t carry a viewer’s attention very far. There’s a big surprise in the middle of the story that pops like a box of fireworks, and a big celebrity cameo that will please those fans.
More than that, what makes it a little gem of guilty pleasure is the attention the script gives the broad supporting cast. Every student of the dozens we meet emerges as someone individually wacko, and the actors make the most of the characters’ oddities. They are relentlessly one-note — screwball, meet dunce; cougar-chaser, meet woman of a certain age bracket — but they are milked for maximum effectiveness.
Even when the dialogue is just OK, and that is frequent, they really work to sell it. Maya Rudolph can’t have more than 10 minutes on-screen as Deanna’s pal Christine, but she delivers her line readings with such energy it’s like she’s cracking a whip.
Modern masterpiece? No. But if you’re too much of a snob to waste your time on lowbrow comedy like this, it’s your loss entirely.