You’ll think you’ve seen Life of the Party before, or at least something very much like it: A dowdy, newly divorced mom goes back to college to finish her degree — and it’s the same college her daughter is attending! Collision course with wackiness, no? Mom embarrasses daughter, whose friends think Mom is fun; Mom realizes she’s a nuisance, offers to leave; daughter feels bad, comes to appreciate what Mom brings to the experience; they all live happily ever after.
But no! Melissa McCarthy, a comedy tornado who’s been upending expectations for as long as she’s had the clout to do so — remember how Spy didn’t have any fat jokes? — does the same here. She and Ben Falcone, her husband, co-writer, and director (they also made Tammy and The Boss together), use the formulaic premise to tell a nice, homey story that mostly avoids contrived conflict and lets the characters act in surprising (but believable!) ways, all while being kind and funny.
Deanna (McCarthy) gets the news that her philandering husband, Dan (Matt Walsh), is dumping her moments after they drop off their daughter, Maddie (Molly Gordon), for her senior year at Decatur University, the very same college Deanna dropped out of 20 years ago when she got pregnant. Dan’s taking the house, too, so Deanna needs a place to live. Does she have to move into the sorority house with Maddie?? Nope! Deanna’s own parents (Stephen Root and Jacki Weaver) live nearby, offering support and sympathy in the form of sandwiches (mom) and threatening to shoot Dan (dad).
Encouraged by her friend Christine (Maya Rudolph), Deanna decides to fix her one regret in life, return to Decatur, and get her archaeology degree. On her first day of classes she’s decked out in school spirit, bouncing around campus with Mom-like enthusiasm and naiveté; she reminded me of Will Ferrell’s first day in New York in Elf. A mean girl, Jennifer (Debby Ryan), mocks Deanna’s age and sincerity, and we think: OK, here’s the plot. Someone’s going to make Deanna’s life difficult. But nope.
Two of Maddie’s friends and sorority sisters, timid Debbie (Jessie Ennis) and nondescript Amanda (Adria Arjona), already know and like Maddie’s mom. Another one, Helen (Gillian Jacobs), who’s older than the others because she was in a coma for eight years (a detail that’s mentioned often but has no payoff), becomes Deanna’s pal, too. Maddie’s not going to stand for this, right? She’ll be embarrassed to have her lame mom hanging around. And it is awkward — for one scene. Then Maddie’s fondness for Mom and sympathy for her over the divorce win out and the girls all take Deanna to a frat party to lift her spirits. (The most embarrassing thing Mom does is suggest they bring a casserole.) Will the guys be mean to her? On the contrary, one of the hottest frat boys, Jack (Luke Benward), is smitten with Deanna, and his affection is treated as legitimate, not a “ha ha, the frat boy has the hots for a portly cougar” kind of joke.
See what I mean? The movie continually veers from the formula to tell a different kind of story altogether. Deanna is a clownish character at first, her unstylish eyeglasses and clothing meant to amuse us, but she soon settles into a more down-to-earth persona. What’s more, the story has no chief antagonist. Jennifer the mean girl, Dan the ex-husband, and Marcie (Julie Bowen) the ex’s new fiancee all periodically cause trouble for Deanna, but the main conflict is internal: She’s reeling from the divorce and isn’t sure she can achieve the graduation goal she’s set for herself. You know who helps her? The great friends who surround her, including her admiring daughter.
A few cliches do kick in late in the game, and there are some random loose threads. Deanna’s archaeology professor (Chris Parnell) is established as having been one of her classmates back in the day, but that never goes anywhere. Deanna’s overwhelming fear of public speaking arises suddenly, really just to set up a single scene where she gives a disastrously sweaty class presentation. But that scene is hilarious — it epitomizes McCarthy’s physicality and commitment — and so who cares if it “needs” to be in the movie, strictly speaking? The same goes for Deanna’s chummy friendship with Christine, where you get the impression they have scenes together just so McCarthy and Rudolph can riff with each other. If this is the kind of warm, meandering, good-natured comedy that McCarthy and Falcone come up with when left to their own devices, I hope Hollywood keeps leaving them to their own devices.