Melissa McCarthy charms in this surprisingly sweet comedy that pushes back against the boxes we put mom characters (and moms) into.
Hollywood tends to have empathy for a very narrow demographic: white men. White women of a certain age have traditionally gotten some play as protagonists in films, but forget about older, fatter women. This is why, though Life of the Party, the newest comedy from actress-writer Melissa McCarthy and writer-director husband Ben Falcone, has its flaws, it’s still a breath of fresh air amongst a Hollywood landscape that tends to forget about women once they reach a certain age, weight, and life phase.
Life of the Party is the story of Deanna (McCarthy), wife to Dan (Matt Walsh) and mother to Maddie (Molly Gordon). Deanna has often felt confined in these all-consuming, often restrictive roles, but it has more or less been enough for her… until her husband, moments after dropping their child off for her senior year of college, informs her that he’s been having an affair. Oh, and he wants a divorce.
The divorce prompts the ever-positive Deanna to enroll at the same college her daughter happens to be attending in order to finish her archaeology degree. Twenty years prior, Deanna dropped out of the same school when she learned she was pregnant, she and Dan deciding that only one of them could afford to complete their senior year and it was going to be him—not an uncommon story, really, and one that it would have been nice to see the film parse out in more detail when it came to the question of financial dependence between married men and women that were only superficially raised in the film.
Deanna may have put 20 years of her life into caring for the house she lived in with Dan and Maddie, but the house is under Dan’s name, which means, when it comes to the divorce, she has no rights to it. The same goes for the money Dan made while Deanna was presumably doing all of the salary-less tasks that women are often expected to perform: serve as the primary parent, keep the house in working order, provide emotional support, make their famous lasagna.
The Life of the Party shines in the moments when it doesn’t just tell Deanna she can be more than the narrow roles of wife and mother she has been forced into, but also that those roles have value. Deanna’s famous lasagna gets made when one of Maddie’s sorority sisters is feeling particularly crushed by the weight of her uncertain future. Deanna’s age is valued, too. Her life experience not only makes her a skilled lover to sweet college hottie Jack (Luke Benward, in a sensitive dude bro role that is subversive in its own right), but also very convincing at the colleges 80s-themed party. She has advice to give to Maddie and her friends, too: Try not to worry too much about what other people think. Revel in the power you have as young women when and where you can. It’s a lesson that feels less fairy tale in a group of affluent, straight, mostly white women.
The movie’s strongest moments are the ones shared between Deanna, Maddie, and their shared group of friends: Gillian Jacobs as ex-coma patient Helen., Adria Arjona as insecure bombshell Amanda, and Jessie Enis as eager-to-please Debbie. The five women form a sisterhood that is the true romance of a film that avoids the trope of having a woman’s dumping at the beginning of the film “solved” by a new romantic partner at the end of the film. When Deanna is dumped by Dan, sure, she grieves for her marriage, but she grieves for the life it represented, too. She grieves for the opportunities she gave away in favor of pleasing a man who eventually decided to “upgrade” his wife to a newer model.
While Deanna may regret leaving college before she could graduate all those years ago, she doesn’t regret her daughter. That love and pride goes both ways and is instilled into every scene featuring Deanna and Maddie. Sure, Maddie is understandably hesitant when she finds out her mother will be coming to her college, but she’s also incredibly understanding. They communicate openly and honest with one another and support one another through all things. They are a team in a way Deanna and Dan seemingly never were, and it’s a pretty cool depiction of what a relationship between young adult daughters and their mothers can look like, reminiscent of the one between Gilmore Girls’ Lorelai and Rory, an unsurprising inspiration when you consider McCarthy starred on the show for seven seasons before going on to star, write, and produce feature films like this one.
For a movie that has such empathy for women, Julie Bowen’s Marcie character is a caricature of the evil stepmother character/other woman. While Dan is terrible, the movie puts the most terrible of actions on Marcie, rather than Dan. This is the kind of cliché—putting the “blame” on the man who promised Deanna something, rather than the woman who “stole” him away— that Life of the Party has the chance to subvert. It’s an awkward misstep for a movie that manages to find empathy even for the objectively terrible college mean girl who serves as Deanna’s chief antagonists while at school. (If you’re wondering, it’s a lot harder to sell the mean girl character in a college setting than it is in a high school one.)
As for the humor, The Life of the Party struggles to make jokes out of what are objectively emotionally devastating, complex moments, but manages some laugh-out-loud sequences in its 105 minutes on the strength of McCarthy’s charms—in particular, a physical comedy bit that sees McCarthy becoming increasingly, improbably sweaty as she struggles to get over her public speaking phobia and deliver an oral presentation to a class of bored 20-somethings. Past McCarthy, particular comedic highlights come in the form of hilariously offbeat performances from Jacobs, Enis, and Heidi Gardner, who plays Deanna’s Goth roommate. Maya Rudolph is here, too, hilarious as Deanna’s best friend Christine, but whose character suffers dramatically from being outside of the college setting where The Life of the Party is at its most vibrant and honest.
Yes, there is a certain degree of wish fulfillment to The Life of the Party‘s set up and easy conclusion, one that avoids the ambition of a better movie, but how often do we swallow the same kind of wish fulfillment logic when it comes to male characters? It can’t hurt to imagine a world where moms are allowed to break outside of the box society puts them in and be a full women, too. Where they are not only avoid punishment for it, but are rewarded for their life experience, openly making jokes about C-section scars and breastfeeding. Where, when they ask questions about their kids or husbands’ lives, they’re not treated like nags, but valued for their emotional support. Where, when they bring a covered dish to a party, it’s not treated like an embarrassment, but a thoughtful gesture. If we see reframe these scenes in movies, perhaps we can reframe them in real life, too.
As a comedy, The Life of the Party gets in enough laughs. As an analysis of the boxes we put maternal figures into, it’s refreshing, if not sometimes disappointingly safe. As a celebration of female relationships, it’s a winner—in other words, it’s the perfect movie to see with your girl squad or, if you don’t have one, to understand what the fuss is all about.