Like Rodney Dangerfield in an Ogilvy home perm and a needlepoint Proud Mom sweater, Melissa McCarthy is going back to school. She will find a nice oaky chardonnay at a frat party; bake a lovely homemade lasagna for her daughter’s self-doubting sorority sisters; and yes, maybe bang a 22-year-old in the library stacks until he calls her his “sexual Dumbledore.”
That’s about 90 percent of the premise for McCarthy’s latest big-screen vehicle — a vaguely movie-shaped casing designed to contain, more or less, her loopy one-woman-band brand of comedy. If that’s your bag (and her metaphorical duffel feels a lot roomier at this point than, say, Adam Sandler’s) Life of the Party is a charming and generally painless way to spend two hours. It’s not nearly as sharp as some of the best stuff she’s done, but it’s pointedly kinder too, wrapping even its nastiest characters — including a pair of sneering, crop-topped Mean Girls — in a cozy Slanket of forgiveness.
McCarthy stars as Deanna, a blithe fortysomething housewife whose only child, Maddie (Molly Gordon) is about to start her senior year at the fictional Decatur University. Deanna doesn’t know that her husband, Dan (Veep’s Matt Walsh), a dour tightwad with a droopy dad mustache, is about to make his own life change; he’s fallen in love with a local real estate agent (Julie Bowen) and decided to “upgrade,” effective immediately.
Blindsided but encouraged to move on by her best friend (Maya Rudolph), Deanna decides to finish the degree she abandoned more than 20 years ago when she got pregnant with Maddie. That means moving into a dorm room with a heavy-lidded agoraphobe (SNL’s Heidi Gardner, so dry she’s a sand dune), getting to know her daughter’s friends (including Gillian Jacobs as an eccentric older student whose college career was waylaid by an eight-year coma), and rediscovering the joy of coed hookups (with Luke Benward, a sweet golden biscuit of a boy).
Somewhere too, will come the obligatory makeover scene, an ’80s-themed dance-off, and several life lessons on the importance of friendship and self-esteem and finding your own path. Director Ben Falcone (McCarthy’s husband and partner on previous outings Tammy and The Boss) still doesn’t quite know how to give a movie any real arc; Party doesn’t have a plot so much as a series of small episodes and improvised riffs leading toward graduation.
What it does have is its star and her sheer, loony life force — a well she’ll keep drawing from (there are at least three more projects on her production slate now) until she, or the audience, moonwalks away. B