Life of the Party is Melissa McCarthy's third collaboration with her husband Ben Falcone, and with each successive movie, McCarthy's played characters who are more confident and the movies are more successful as a result. Tammy was far too uncertain of itself, and The Boss never could pick between being nasty or sweet. But they all had their moments. But Life of the Party is the most successful, the most consistently funny, and the best performance McCarthy has given since Spy.
McCarthy plays Deanna, one of the corniest and most sincere characters seen in a modern comedy. She's the bubbly mother of Maddie (Molly Gordon, the film's weak link), who's beginning her senior year at fictional Decatur University. Deanna's doltish husband Dan (Matt Walsh of Veep) cruelly announces that he wants a divorce, and that he's selling the house they lived in and raised Maddie in for two decades. With nowhere to live and a sense of urgency to do something, she enrolls alongside Maddie, conveniently needing only one year of school to finish her archaeology degree. (A sharper movie would have explored that an archaeology degree in today's economy won't set the newly single Deanna up for success, but McCarthy doesn't make those kinds of movies.)
The movie is never mean-spirited, even if it's not wholly believable that Maddie and her friends would immediately latch onto Deanna. The big conflict feels contrived, with former Disney Channel star Debby Ryan acting as Deanna's archrival and biggest bully. (Maybe my college experience was different, but the only bully most of us ever encountered on campus was the loud street preacher.)
But the comedy consistently works, with McCarthy showing her versatility as a performer, making self-deprecating jokes, crushing a dance-off, and sweating as much as Robert Hays in Airplane! during an ill-fated oral presentation. The film also dares to make Deanna a sexual being, as she repeatedly hooks up with Jack, a student closer to Maddie's age. Their romantic conflict comes from Deanna's years of wisdom, knowing that they want different things at this stage of life, and not because it's "weird."
McCarthy's also a generous comedian, sharing the spotlight with Gillian Jacobs (who already played an older college student on Community), her Bridesmaids co-star Maya Rudolph, and Stephen Root and Jacki Weaver as her age-appropriate parents. (This was a problem in Tammy, where Allison Janney played her mom and Susan Sarandon played her grandmother.)
There was a period where it seemed we might get McCarthy fatigue. But by continuing to collaborate with directors who know how to use her (including Falcone and Paul Feig), and expanding her horizons with the upcoming Can You Ever Forgive Me? and The Happytime Murders, she might be moving into the best phase of her career.