Melissa McCarthy goes back to college

Life of the Party. Directed and co-written by Ben Falcone. Starring Melissa McCarthy, Gillian Jacobs, Maya Rudolph and Julie Bowen. Rating: 6 (out of 10)

College commencement ceremonies are taking place all over the country, attended by wistful parents wishing they could turn back the clock. The time is right, then, for a movie about a 40-something, newly single woman getting a do-over. 

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Rodney Dangerfield went Back To School in the ’80s. So did Tom Hanks (Larry Crowne), Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum (22 Jump Street), and Vince Vaughn, Will Ferrell and Luke Wilson (in Old School). In fact, movies about old guys going back to school is nothing new: Bing Crosby did it way back in 1960, in High Time.

Thanks to co-writers McCarthy and Ben Falcone the back-to-college trope gets a gender makeover, with McCarthy hitting both the books and the party scene, with mixed comic results.

No sooner does Deanna (Melissa McCarthy) drop off her daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon) for her senior year of college when her husband (Veep’s Matt Walsh) announces he wants a divorce. One drunken racquetball game later (really, is there any other way to play racquetball?) Deanna decides to fulfil a nagging dream: to finish up her last year of college and graduate.

Maddie is initially horrified – particularly when “Dee-Rock”, as she becomes known, hooks up with a fraternity brother – but she welcomes mom once her roommates get on board with having a perimenopausal sorority sister.

And as for the smitten Jack (Luke Benward), he’s a cutie, making plans for the odd couple to backpack across Europe after graduation. “I can’t do that anymore… my backpacks have wheels,” laments Deanna.

Most viewers will go into the movie knowing from previous McCarthy offerings – The Heat, Tammy, The Boss, Identity Thief – what they’re in for. Plenty of physical gags, self-effacing dialogue and predictable story arcs. There’s nothing earth-shattering about a woman in her 40s going back to university, after all, at least not within the confines of the comedy genre and a PG rating.

Here’s what the movie does have going for it.

It’s rude, but not raunchy It’s a bit like an ’80s throwback, a la Revenge of the Nerds, back to when we didn’t need to see it up front and personal to get the joke. There are cute names for parts of the female anatomy (“va-Google”) and Deanna hooks up with a much younger guy, but we’re not subjected to the gory details.

There is no nudity, no boners, no poop of any kind.

There is drinking, but not a lot, and Deanna’s pre-tequila-shot cheers are prefaced by moral messages such as “equal pay for equal work!” There is drug use, but it’s accidental.

There’s never any question of the integrity of the mother-daughter relationship. Deanna was clearly a great mom and raised a great kid. No forced drama or acting-out because – let’s face it – most of that would’ve been over and done with after high school anyway.

There’s a surplus of girl-power messages. Deanna is adopted by her daughter’s sorority sisters, including a girl who was in a coma for eight years (Gillian Jacobs), a sweet beauty (Adria Arjona), and a girl afraid to speak her mind (Jessie Ennis). These girls embrace her because despite a few decades of feminism and opportunity after Deanna, the sisters still worry that they’ll never get a job, never find a life partner, never be taken seriously. Deanna is a walking cautionary tale wrapped up in a fleecy, bedazzled package, telling them to demand better.

And the players are all top-notch: Maya Rudolph is hilarious as the married-forever friend living vicariously through Deanna; Julie Bowen (Modern Family) is clearly having a ball as the villain. Sure, we wish we saw more of Saturday Night Live’s Heidi Gardner (as Deanna’s anti-social roommate) and would have liked her agoraphobia storyline to be wrapped up by a big bear hug by Deanna, but McCarthy brings so much joy and downright niceness to the role that it’s hard to criticize the overall product.

There are at least two moments funny enough to bring down the house, and despite Life of the Party’s flaws, I appreciated the attempt by McCarthy and husband Falcone to create a college movie that plays nice for a change.


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