In official terms, there hasn’t been an SNL Movie™ since MacGruber (perhaps the artistic height of the medium) tragically died in the theaters in 2010. Long gone are the days where recurring, one-note Saturday Night Live characters like Stuart Smalley & Mary Katherine Gallagher were allowed to carry a feature-length comedy on their own. The modern SNL movie is a low-key affair, manifesting in pictures like Popstar, Sisters, and Ghostbusters (2016), where the cast is stacked with chummy SNL vets, but the premise was born outside the show. Melissa McCarthy movies are an even more rarified breed within that modern tradition, as McCarthy herself was never quite an official member of the Saturday Night Live cast. She may have hosted & cameoed so many times on the show that she seems like a natural extension of the staff and she may have started her comedy career in The Groundlings with professional besties Kristen Wiig & Maya Rudolph, but McCarthy is an SNL guest player at best (like Steve Martin in the 1970s). What’s curious about that is the way her own comedy features (especially the ones she’s collaborated on with husband/fellow Groundlings-vet Ben Falcone) feel like the lowkey, unofficial SNL comedies that most closely recall the brand’s 1990s “Every recurring character gets a movie!” heyday. Reinforced by the presence of SNL vets Chris Parnell, Maya Rudolph, and (current cast member) Heidi Gardner, the latest McCarthy-Falcone joint feels exactly like the 1990s model for the SNL Movie™, only with the absurdity turned slightly down to make room for saccharine sentimentality (something McCarthy can’t help but bring to the screen between her violent bursts of slapstick). That comedic aesthetic is a kind of risk, as the classic SNL Movie™ is only beloved by a hopelessly dorky few, but I personally find it to be an endearing comfort, a return to the sweetly dumb movies I was raised on out of brand loyalty to SNL as an institution.
Playing a Midwestern 90s Mom character I wouldn’t be surprised to learn she’s been whipping out since The Groundlings, McCarthy stars as a middle-aged divorcee who enrolls back in college to finish a degree she abandoned for the sake of her family. As she crashes the frat & sorority party scene also inhabited by her college-senior daughter, the movie doesn’t shy away from its unavoidable similarities to the Roger Dangerfield classic Back to School. The relentless barrage of party sequences & studying montages almost make Life of the Party feel like another McCarthy-helmed, gender-flipped remake. That bawdy Dangerfield irreverence & fish-out-of-water social humor is also contrasted against a striking amount of sentimentality, however, as the movie focuses more on McCarthy’s inner journey as a woman who’s tired of being an emotional doormat than it does on her daughter’s initial horror at her presence (not to mention her sex drive). For the most part, she fits right in with the younger students, even being inducted into their sorority house as an honorary sister and finding herself a young boy-toy to wear out in the bedroom. Life of the Party is overlong, burdened by an inspo-pop soundtrack, and generally suffers from an improvisational looseness that should have spent a little more time simmering in the editing room, but I think most audiences’ biggest hurdle will be reconciling that overly earnest tone with expectations of gag-a-minute slapstick. This is a much more labored, sentimental piece than either Tammy or The Boss, the previous two McCarthy-Falcone collabs, but its sweetness isn’t necessarily a mood-killer if you’re willing to accept it as an essential part of the movie’s fabric. I still think the hedonistic, low-class excess of Tammy is the couple’s greatest collaboration to date, but Life of the Party’s warm blanket of Midwestern Mom energy has a charm of its own.
If you can withstand the crushing weight of its Hallmark sentimentality, Life of the Party also offers the simple joy of women being afforded space to be funny. In addition to the always-reliable McCarthy & Maya Rudolph, who bring a middle-aged severity to out-of-nowhere slapstick gags of explosions & crotch-shots, the movie also allows plenty of screentime for promising lesser-knowns. Heidi Gardner recalls the same nu-metal & mall goth battiness she often brings to her SNL sketches as McCarthy’s shut-in roommate. Gillian Jacobs (who should be starring in her own wide-release features by now) often runs away with the movie as coma survivor & sorority sister who drifts through life in an anarchic haze. There are many tonally sloppy reaction shots in Life of the Party that director Falcone should have paid much more attention to in the editing room, but Jacobs manages to turn her own into an art form, acting as an element of dazed chaos even when idling in the background. Her Love costar Jessie Ennis also shows promise as a relative newcomer, operating with a wide-eyed derangement as a sorority sister who wants to fit in at any cost. The way these women rally around McCarthy’s new-lease-on-life mom is so sweet it borders on surreality, affording Life of the Party a sustained, low-key joy even when specific jokes don’t land or a labored party sequence drags on into a tequila-drenched eternity. The joys of Life of the Party’s slapstick & absurdism require a patience with its saccharine earnestness & editing room looseness, especially in a year where we’ve seen that sweet/raunchy balance achieved so expertly in Blockers. I’m more than willing to put in the effort for this endearing of talent (especially from too-rarely-seen performers like Gardner & Jacobs), something I’m long familiar with as someone who was comedically raised on the SNL Movie™ in its heyday. I haven’t quite fallen for a McCarthy-Falcone joint with full enthusiasm since Tammy, but as long as they keep making them I’ll likely keep enjoying them. I’ve got to get my SNL Movie™ fix somewhere and I just don’t see a Laura Parsons or Chris Kirkpatrick movie arriving anytime soon, no matter how badly I want them.