I sometimes think about the things I would do if I were granted three low stakes wishes. Sure, it would be great to do the big stuff – instantly solve global warming or return Donald Trump to The Apprentice – but sometimes it’s less overwhelming to deal with the little things. I think it would be pretty satisfying to just instantly be able to put pockets in all of my skirts or remove raisins from all of my cookies (and from all of my life, tbh). Lower stakes mean lower stress.
Few movies this summer will have lower stakes than Life of the Party. Co-written by Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone (who also directs), the comedy centers on a 40-something woman named Deanna, who, following a surprise divorce, decides to go back to college to finish her degree at the same school her daughter is attending. That’s it. The universe is not in danger, there are no dinosaurs, there’s not even a plot to rob somebody at the Met Gala. Just a sweatshirt-inclined mom with a midlife crisis. Maybe it’s because the stakes are so low that I’m able to overlook the uneven pace of Life of the Party, and the lack of dimension in the secondary characters. More likely, it’s because despite the fact that it’s not a particularly well-constructed film, it made me laugh and kept me engaged.
It probably goes without saying that that’s due in large part to Melissa McCarthy. There’s no reason to pretend McCarthy isn’t the center of this movie. She co-wrote it, she stars in it, and she’s the main reason many people will be interested in seeing it. Rightly so. McCarthy is fantastically talented, though you have to look a bit harder than normal – and in different places – to see it in Life of the Party. Well known as a comedic actress, McCarthy is often associated with a broad style of humor: the kind that involves costumes and prat falls. She uses some of those tools here, but she’s at her best in this film not when she’s wearing a sequin-laden sweatshirt or lighting all of her ex’s shit on fire, but in her more subtle moments of comedy, like when she gently explains to the 20-year-old she’s hooking up with that no woman will ever want to end a sexual encounter by being compared to Dumbledore. More than once in the movie, McCarthy’s delivery and timing make a mediocre joke laugh-worthy.
Beyond just McCarthy’s performance, it’s true of Life of the Party as a whole that the best aspects of the film are the most understated. The broadest comedy – an accidentally-getting-stoned scene, a public speaking disaster – falls the flattest, but where there’s more nuance in the comedy and in the characters, McCarthy and Falcone are doing some interesting stuff. There’s a restaurant scene mid-film, for example, that includes a big reveal about Deanna’s ex’s new girlfriend, but the best part of that scene isn’t the irony of that revelation, but rather the delightful way Deanna’s friends (Maya Rudolph and Damon Jones) react to it.
Rudolph is also great in this movie, by the way. Her character isn’t particularly well-developed, and she’s doing the pretty thankless “supportive married friend” job, but she and McCarthy genuinely seem to be having fun when they’re in scenes together, and I’m all for more movies that feature adult women who enjoy their friends. And as a further reminder that Falcone and McCarthy might be better at casting people than writing characters, Gillian Jacobs is fantastic as Helen, a student who is older than average because her college start was delayed by an eight-year coma. The “coma girl” storyline is pretty thin, and it seems like it might have just been an excuse to get 35-year-old Jacobs into a college movie. If it was, I’m not mad about it; Jacobs does better comedic work with just her face than most people can do with their brains, mouths, and bodies combined.
It’s those little things – Jacobs’ facial expressions, sneakily funny one-liners, the realistic way Deanna interacts with her daughter despite the incredibly bizarre circumstances – that make Life of the Party charming and fun despite the fact that it could have been much tighter. It may be true that Life of the Party is less than the sum of its parts, but I liked watching it, I laughed along the way, and I never had to worry about or not somebody is going to win a fight with a skyscraper.