Melissa McCarthy has risen to superstardom by being the bad girl. The no-she-didn't, belly-flopping, self-effacing spiritual descendant of John Belushi who will go to the darkest, wackiest and most disturbing places in search of the laugh. In "Life of the Party," McCarthy goes against the grain and proves she can be just as funny by going the opposite way.
Collaborating with her director husband, Ben Falcone, on the screenplay, McCarthy eschews her usual wild persona to play Deanna, a repressed, hokey midwestern housewife. Freshly divorced from the husband she considered her life, Deanna goes full reboot and returns to college to finish the degree she put aside to raise her daughter, Maddie (Molly Gordon), who is also starting her senior year.
What might have been a lazy fish-out-of-water gawkfest, complete with a mother embarrassing her daughter at every turn, becomes something more. The twist is that Deanna and Maddie get along, and Deanna fits in surprisingly well with her gaggle of friends.
Even as Deanna awkwardly tries to bond with her dorm roommate, crams for exams and rages at parties, she remains a slightly more adventurous version of the fuddy-duddy she's crafted. The laughs spring subtly and organically, melding with a tale of reinvention and mother-daughter bonding. The comedy is an inspirational, fist-pumping tale of going after what you want despite the restrictions of social conventions.
That's not to say the movie is clean. It's best when it's at its raunchiest, with McCarthy often acting as a blank slate, absorbing the wildness of the unchecked youthful energy of college life.
Many of the most winning moments come from Deanna's facepalm-inducing overshares. Her sex talks with her daughter, trash-talking with classmates and an attempt at dirty talk hookup are painfully and hilariously awkward. McCarthy retains her penchant for well-timed one-liners, but she brings home the laughs with hokey, understated aphorisms.
The magic McCarthy and Falcone generate together is well-calibrated and precise, showing a natural evolution from similar success in "Tammy" and "The Boss."
"Life of the Party" maintains its momentum throughout, but could have used some tightening and recasting it struggles toward a too-conventional ending, complete with a dubious celebrity cameo. As a whole, the movie works masterfully at wringing laughs out of its premise.
School's in session and McCarthy is teaching a comedic master class.