Adults need wish-fulfillment fantasies too and the amiable Melissa McCarthy comedy "Life of the Party" indulges our collective hope that mistakes can be mended, we're never too old for redemption and, given the chance, we could still slay in a frat house dance-off if the DJ played the right song. (In this case, it's Sugarhill Gang's "Apache," which is always the right song.)
But I haven't even mentioned the movie's grandest grown-up flight of fancy: Namely that if you somehow found yourself immersed in the world of your young-adult children, your offspring would not only tolerate your presence, but actually listen to your hard-earned wisdom and want to spend loads and loads of time with you.
Hoo-boy! Wrap me in that warm blanket of a daydream and switch off the light on your way out.
McCarthy wrote "Life of the Party" with her husband Ben Falcone, who also directed the movie. To say it's the best of their three collaborations might be underselling the film's appeal since the other two films — "Tammy" and "The Boss" — didn't make the best use of McCarthy's considerable comic talents. The third time proves to be, if not the charm, at least more charming because it employs McCarthy's empathy along with her edginess. Plus, Maya Rudolph's in the movie.
McCarthy plays Deanna, a peppy, proud mom (it says so on her pink sweater) who decides to finish her college degree after her husband (Matt Walsh) dumps her. Turns out Deanna abandoned her dreams of pursuing archaeology after becoming pregnant with her daughter, Maddie (Molly Gordon), who, yes, is now her university classmate. Awk-ward, right?
Not really. "Life of the Party," for the most part, coasts along free of conflict and untethered by plot. Deanna quickly becomes accepted by both her daughter and her sorority friends, a well-chosen squad (the great Allison Jones cast the movie) that includes Gillian Jacobs ("Love," "Community"), who's so good and offbeat here that she actually steals scenes from McCarthy. Deanna bakes these girls lasagna, boosts their self-esteem and exhorts them to enjoy the power and beauty of their youth. (And, yes, if that sounds like a line from "Wear Sunscreen," it is, as Deanna functions as a sage gumption-dispenser to all who come into contact with her.)
Deanna's disciples include a sweetly smitten frat boy (Luke Benward), whose infatuation with her provides one of the movie's few narrative wrinkles. But to complain that nothing much happens here or ponder the film's curiously tame view of university life (Rodney Dangerfield would most definitely get no respect here) is to miss the point of the movie, which is to serve as a vehicle for McCarthy, spotlighting her warm, screwball spirit and irrepressible physical comedy. (McCarthy turns glossophobe Deanna's classroom presentation into a sweaty, panic-stricken piece of performance art.)
And, again, Rudolph's on board playing Deanna's supportive best friend. The sheer force of these two women together can compensate for a lot. Comic momentum becomes kind of irrelevant when you know, if you're patient, you'll see them tear the roof off the sucker soon enough.
‘Life of the Party’
Rated: PG-13, for sexual material, drug content and partying
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Playing: In general release