Life of the Party is Ben Falcone’s third film with Melissa McCarthy, and it’s every bit as good as Tammy and The Boss, even if it’s been met with the same lukewarm reception from the critical community at large. In this incarnation, McCarthy plays Deanna “Dee Rock” Miles, a forty-something mother who gave up her dreams of an academic career to support her husband Dan, played by Matt Walsh, with his work, and to raise her daughter Maddie, played by Molly Gordon. The film opens with Deanna and Dan dropping off Maddie for her final year of college, only for Dan to reveal, somewhat unceremoniously, that he is leaving Deanna for their real estate agent, and that she needs to move out of their house. After an attenuated and somewhat obligatory midlife crisis sequence, Deanna decides that she wants to complete the degree in archaeology that she started all those years ago, moving into accommodation at Decatur University where she starts off as something of a comic inconvenience to her daughter, but quickly becomes the epicenrer of a memorable cast of characters and an indispensable part of Molly’s college education, experience and lifestyle.
From the outset, then, Life of the Party, like the underrated NBC sitcom Great News, forms part of a broader trend of comedies focusing on women of a certain age who missed out on their part in the workforce. There’s inevitably a certain melancholy in that, not least because McCarthy’s own comic talent should have been enough to get her better and more prominent roles throughout her twenties and thirties before her performance in Bridesmaids finally catapulted her into the stratosphere. That melancholy also attaches itself to her character here as well, as Deanna finds herself confronted with the life she might have had if she had pursued her passion for archaeology – a trajectory that is never presented as even slightly incompatible with motherhood, by the way – culminating with her realisation that one of her old classmates from her freshman year is now her lecturer.
Yet that melancholy is, ultimately, fairly fleeting, as Deanna gets into the college groove pretty quickly, acclimatising to a regular rotation of parties and finding herself in a casual sexual relationship with Jack, played by Luke Benward, an undergraduate who becomes obssessed with her after they hook up at a local fraternity bash. For the most part, relationships of this kind between an older woman and a younger man tend to be tacitly prohibited and punished by Hollywood norms for violating the sanctity of motherhood, but Life of the Party is quite steadfast in allowing Deanna to be sexually experimental and maternal at the same time. If anything, the more sexually experimental she becomes, the more sophisticated and nuanced her maternal inclinations become, as evinced in the sexual wisdom she bestows upon Molly immediately after her first encounter with Jack. In another kind of film, that might be presented as comically transgressive, or enjoyably cringey, but it’s remarkable how quickly Falcone and McCarthy’s screenplay traverses this reaction, and how quickly Deanna goes from being a source of abject embarrassment to being a fixture on campus without feeling in the least ingratiating or insinuating about the way she manages it.
To some extent, that’s because Deanna maintains her homeliness, or hominess, throughout even her most irreverent college antics, in what often plays like a sly deconstruction of the ways in which McCarthy, and women with bodies like McCarthy’s, tend to be framed in Hollywood as a whole – namely, as bundles of promiscuous pleasure, or as homely reproaches to pleasure. In all three of his films with McCarthy, Falcone has undercut that distinction, which perhaps explains why they have engendered such an ambivalent response from critics anxious to applaud McCarthy for her “bravery.” As a result, Life of the Party often ceases to feel like a comedy, or at least a college comedy, just because there’s so little comic valency attached, in the end, to the spectacle of Deanna as both mother and student. As much as the film might have been marketed around this spectacle, the twist of it all is how amenable motherhood and sexuality turn out to be, as if only the most enormous, conspiratorial contrivance on the part of Hollywood could frame it as being any other way.
What ensues, then, is closer to a genuine feel-good film than a frathouse comedy, as Deanna’s maternity becomes less tethered to her daughter and more dispersed across the female population of the campus as a whole. Mediating one exchange after another, Deanna’s age doesn’t signify irrelevance, or redundancy, or abjection, but wisdom, and, along with wisdom, an older kind of feel-good feminine energy more associated with a media ecology focused on tactile exchanges of objects, gifts and tokens. No surprise, then, that one of the first invitations Deanna gets is to a video night – or, rather, that a video night is the first event that the sorority sisters conceive as adequate to her mediating presence in their lives – nor that they give her the affectionate nickname of “Glenn,” seeing in her an amalgam of the different personae and characteristics that made Glenn Close such a formative figure for them when perusing their parents’ videos and DVDs at high school. While McCarthy may have been linked to various anecedents, Glenn Close has never been one of them, and in that lineage lies the deftness of Life of the Party, which follows Tammy and The Boss in brokering her physical charisma into connections normally defied by her Hollywood treatment, let alone by the adulations of courage afforded by the liberal press.
Among other things, that means that the “unruliness” of McCarthy’s body plays a different role in Life of the Party than it does in most of her films, with the exception – once again – of Tammy and The Boss. Here, as there, the unruliness isn’t denied or disavowed, but what endures is the speed with which Deanna acclimatises her body to the demands made of it without sacrificing its irreverence or energy in the first place. After all, Life of the Party is essentially a makeover film, and yet its originality lies in never really presenting the makeover as a surprising or startling fact, let alone a comically surprising or startling fact, meaning that even when Deanna steps into her “college” shoes the effect is to simply intensify something that was there all along rather than to present a properly disciplined or regulated female body. The point is made especially concisely during an 80s-themed party, in which Deanna takes to the dance floor for a stand-off that is comically hyperbolic, and yet also feels strangely plausible given her age and her adolescence in the eighties, making for a spectacle that defies you to laugh even as it demands not to be taken too seriously as well.
As the film proceeds, that gradually builds a utopian vision of the American campus driven by maternal wisdom rather than toxic masculinity or rape culture. It took me a while to notice that there are no real figures of masculine authority in the film, and that gradual realisation is part of the film’s charm, evoking a world in which men aren’t debilitated in any vindictive way, but in which the equation of college with male agency that drives so many campus films simply isn’t there in a meaningful or emphatic manner. While Molly never turns against her father (and actually defends him at one point to Deanna), he’s completely absent as a way of stabilising meaning, while every romantic prospect that Deanna encounters remains just that – a prospect for pleasure – rather than a way of anchoring her own narrative. The closest the film comes to that masculine regulation of female pleasure is the initiation ritual that Deanna has to pass to be accepted into the sorority – being “paddled” on the backside by her daughter in the middle of the night – but even that internalises, contains and parodies the male rituals of college more than anything else, just as the crisis of the film, and the final moment of conflict between mother and daughter, sees Molly telling Deanna she doesn’t want her to end up “acting like some dumb frat guy.”
That absence of a regulating male presence also works against any clean conclusion, as Falcone and McCarthy end with Deanna’s graduation, but present it as a beginning more than an ending. The result is an openness that has become typical of films about middle-aged female subjectivity in recent years, from Mia Hansen-Love’s Things to Come to the last episode of Great News, and that eludes any clear moral – the very register of moralism itself – to instead focus on an emergent materal imperative that resets the boundaries of what morality consists of in the first place. In doing so, Life of the Party remains true to the sting that lies beneath its palatability, a sting that crystallises in the twist that Deanna’s new lover, Jack, is also the son of Dan’s new mistress. Comically speculating that her toy boy makes her ex-husband her new father-in-law, Deanna rewrites the midlife crisis narrative in her own image in the most adventurous and heterodox way – too adventurously, perhaps, for critics used to a more staid and stable conception of what McCarthy’s physical presence entails, but a pure delight for anyone already entranced by her collaborations with Falcone.