As I’ve mentioned many times, comedies are a peculiar thing. With each person maintaining their own unique sense of humor, attempting to craft and then execute a story that appeals to, if not the majority, enough people to earn millions of dollars is quite the lofty task. Lately, many comedies have opted to become more sophisticated in order to reach viewers on levels outside of their funny bones. Of recent films, Blockers (review) and Love, Simon (review) were both extraordinarily successful in their own attempts to pull this off, whereas Game Night (review) reigned in the subtext but delivered huge laughs. Life of the Party follows in the tracks of those films, delivering solid comedy but ultimately decides to send a much more important message along the way.
In the film, Melissa McCarthy (Spy) portrays Deanna, a loving mom and housewife who is seeing her daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon, Love the Coopers) enter her senior year of college. Dreading the inevitable moment of full separation as Maddie is approaching full-blown independence, Deanna’s world is decimated when her husband and Maddie’s father asks for a divorce. In order to dust herself off and start a new life, Deanna vows to finish her college degree and enrolls at the same school as her daughter, trying to find the balance between fitting in, behaving responsibly, enjoying her freedom, and allowing Maddie her space.
Directed by Ben Falcone (The Boss) and written by Falcone and McCarthy, Life of the Party has mostly taken a drubbing from critics. Normally, critics make valid points, even when I find their ultimate opinion to be disagreeable, but I’m not finding that to be true in this case. Many of them are saying things such as, “This part was good and this other part was good and the film does a good job with this thing, too, but I still don’t like it.” Others are stating that it’s completely unfunny (that’s relative) or that it’s clichéd and/or formulaic. I can’t help but think that perhaps some are feeling threatened by the film and its message because, in my estimation, none of this is true.
Before I dive too deep, I want to give a nod to not only McCarthy but also to her primary supporting cast. McCarthy commits wholeheartedly to the role of Deanna, earning her laughs through her naivety and earnest cluelessness about modern youth culture. It’s not always what she says, but how and why she says it. But around her are her best friend Christine (Maya Rudolph), her daughter Maddie, and Maddie’s friends (Gillian Jacobs, Adria Arjona, and Jessie Ennis). The script is thoughtful enough to give each of these characters their own distinct personalities, complete with unique strengths, weaknesses, and quirks. They aren’t just indistinguishable college girls tossed in to be used as props. They all contribute to the film, earn the audience’s appreciation, and validate their presence. Throw in a scene-stealing turn by Heidi Gardner (one of Saturday Night Live’s biggest assets) and we have a film packed with women who are all knocking it out of the park.
The film is funny, and my fellow moviegoers agreed. Certain moments actually received sustained and hardy laughter. We get off to a rough start when the divorce request is made, but things get better after that. It’s not the funniest movie of the year, but it’s definitely funny – funnier than most current comedies. Even better is the fact that its humor is good-spirited. Even jokes about Deanna’s age are in actuality targeting those making said joke, as, while Deanna is presented as out-of-touch, she is never genuinely presented as old.
That leads me to what I loved most about Life of the Party: The film and the narrative are targeted on positivity and optimism. I fully expected the main conflict in the film to be between mother and daughter, with the daughter being embarrassed by her mother and having to overcome her own anger towards the woman who raised and loves her, but that isn’t the case, at all. There are a few moments where Deanna and Maddie rub each other the wrong way, but these moments are brief and mostly played for comedy, rather than drama. That would have been the easy and obvious story to tell, but the movie avoids it.
Instead, Deanna and Maddie are presented as a loving and supportive mother-daughter pairing, and it’s incredibly refreshing. In fact, nearly everyone in the film is a good, decent, caring person. The few that are not are quickly shut down and disposed of, sending the message that positivity is far preferable and superior to negativity. So, the primary conflict of the film is not external but rather the internal battle in which Deanna is struggling to reclaim her own identity after decades of defining herself entirely by her daughter and husband.
I saw another critic – one who liked the film – state that Life of the Party projects a message of feminism, but I don’t necessarily find that to be accurate. With the exception of Deanna’s ex-husband, the men in the film are just as endearing and likable as the women (though there aren’t as many of them). Rather than that, I see the film as simultaneously being about identity and sisterhood. This story could have pitted female against female at nearly every turn but mostly sidesteps the typical college girl stereotype and instead presents a group of wildly different women – different in background, age, personality, interests – as being supportive, unified, and complex , all while making us laugh. I walked out thinking how I wish that real life and people could be the way the people in this film are. Sadly, that isn’t the case, but I sure enjoyed living in this world where it is – even if it was only for an hour and forty-five minutes. Maybe some critics fear the idea of women supporting each other and forming a unified front. But if you don’t, I say go and enjoy this movie. I don’t see how you couldn’t.
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