(M) 105 minutes

Melissa McCarthy became an overnight sensation in one movie – after 15 years of hard work. The movie was Bridesmaids from 2011, and she wasn't exactly unknown. Her support role in The Gilmore Girls from 2000 to 2007 established her credibility as a comedic actress. Bridesmaids put her into the movie big time, partly because of a scene that was as gross as anything in any male gross-out comedy – six women discovering they have food poisoning, while at a bridal fitting. Eek.

McCarthy since then has become a cultural and box office phenomenon. Her next two movies, The Heat and Identity Thief, took $US400 million between them, but again, she was co-star. St Vincent, opposite Bill Murray, made a lot less money but showed she could handle a dramatic role. In 2014, she co-starred in Tammy with Susan Sarandon, but this time, the director was her husband, actor/director Ben Falcone. They co-wrote it and produced it via their own production company.

Up to this point, McCarthy was always one half of the bill, the funny fat woman with the skinny straight man who was usually a woman. In 2015, she took the lead in Spy, directed by Paul Feig. That movie, which took $US235 million, is still her greatest hit – and that was important. Hollywood until then could pigeon-hole her as a reliable co-lead. Spy made her a headliner, capable of sustaining a movie by herself. In that same year, she became the third highest paid female actor in the world, behind Jennifer Lawrence and Scarlett Johansson. McCarthy went to number two in 2016, when she co-starred in the fairly ordinary Ghostbusters remake.

Adria Arjoni, Melissa McCarthy and Molly Gordon in a scene from Life of the Party.

Photo: Hopper Stone


So much for the box-office part of the phenomenon. The cultural aspect of her stardom is more interesting. McCarthy is not the first successful plus-size comedienne, but she is perhaps the first to situate body image at the centre of her fairly outspoken feminism. Most of her roles, especially those she and Falcone write together, have the evolution of a put-upon woman as their story. In Tammy, she goes on the road with her wild granny (Sarandon) after losing her husband and job. In Spy, she's the mouse in the corner of the office who's elevated to CIA field officer. And in Life of the Party, she's a happily married woman who rediscovers herself after her husband runs off with another woman.

Deanna (McCarthy) is a woman who has swallowed her ambition in favour of husband and family. Her beautiful daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon) is now starting college. When husband Dan (Matt Walsh) announces that he is "upgrading" his relationship to be with Marcie the realtor (Julie Bowen), Deanna follows Maddie to Decatur University to follow her passion for archaeology.

It's a long way from McCarthy's best film, but it has plenty of moments. One of the problems is that most of them seem crafted for use in a trailer, rather than as part of an absorbing narrative. That's not unusual in modern comedy, although it makes the film less emotionally demanding and rewarding. What's more interesting is the subtext, which is about McCarthy sending a message to younger women about their self-worth.

Parts of the film are like a female Animal House – with McCarthy getting drunk and rediscovering sex while embarrassing her daughter and bonding with her sorority sisters – but the heart of the film is not this raucous comedy. It's about McCarthy the den mother empowering her brood of beautiful but vulnerable younger sisters – played by a well-chosen group of relatively new actresses: Gillian Jacobs, Jessie Ennis, Heidi Gardner and Adria Arjona.

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Melissa McCarthy, left, and Jacki Weaver in a scene from "Life of the Party," in theaters on May 11. (Hopper Stone/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

Photo: Hopper Stone

McCarthy doesn't try to conceal her purpose: she has won her power the hard way and she wants to use it for the greater good. That's part of what makes her the cultural icon she has become, the champion of downtrodden woman of all shapes and sizes.

The unbearable truth is that when it comes to comedy, nobody comes for the encouraging message. They come for the outrageous comedy that made her an icon, and there's barely enough of that to lift the film above all the run of the mill stuff that's already out there. It's a hard lesson for someone so passionate about her purpose. You can say anything when you make people laugh – but you can never stop doing that, no matter what you want to say.

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Melissa McCarthy in a scene from "Life of the Party," in theaters on May 11. (Hopper Stone/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

Photo: Hopper Stone

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Paul Byrnes

Paul Byrnes was director of the Sydney Film Festival from 1989 to 1998. He has been a film critic for The Sydney Morning Herald for 20 years. In 2007, he was awarded the Geraldine Pascall prize for critical writing, the highest award in the Australian media for critics in any genre.

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