Life of the Party

Going-Back-to-College Movies, Graded

In honor of ‘Life of the Party,’ we look back at other comedies about aging characters giving it the old college try

On Friday, Melissa McCarthy will hit theaters with Life of the Party, a comedy in which she plays an unhappy wife and mother who decides to chuck her life and start over, going back to college alongside her teenage daughter.

Sound familiar?

That’s because Life of the Party is hardly the first film to use that concept as its narrative engine. In fact, the McCarthy movie is in a proud tradition of comedies that examine the awkwardness and rewards of hitting the restart button by pursuing your diploma as an adult. Below is a list of the most memorable back-to-college movies — and our evaluation of them on their individual degree of college-ness. Namely: Will they make you miss your university days? And: Do the characters actually attend classes?

Our grades are final.

‘Necessary Roughness’ (1991)

Name of Fictional College: Texas State University. (It was actually filmed at the University of North Texas.)

How Much College Do the Characters Actually Attend? Not much. The film, about a football team that gets the death penalty for violating NCAA rules, stars Scott Bakula as Blake, a former high-school star who’s coaxed into attending Texas State University to play quarterback. Most of Necessary Roughness focuses on the football team as they bond and become unlikely heroes. But because this is a college comedy, the movie figures out a way to execute one of the genre’s most hallowed tropes: taking out the snooty dean in the most humiliating way possible.

Will This Movie Make You Nostalgic for College? If your football team was kinda terrible but full of pluck and moxie — and, improbably, featured Kathy Ireland as its placekicker — then Necessary Roughness might have you reeling in the years.

Final Grade: C. Derivative, dopey, occasionally funny, totally forgettable. In your boring adult life, you have probably paid bills or done the laundry with this movie on in the background.

‘Larry Crowne’ (2011)

Name of Fictional College: East Valley Community College. (It was actually filmed at California State University Dominguez Hills.)

How Much College Do the Characters Actually Attend? A downsized big-box store employee, Larry (Tom Hanks, who also directed and co-wrote this movie) takes economics and speech — George Takei teaches the former, while the latter is taught by Julia Roberts, who Larry starts dating. It’s a sign of Larry Crowne’s supreme cheesiness that Larry’s defining moment occurs when he has to deliver a sweeping, aw-shucks monologue in his speech class — not only does Larry get to show off what a charming guy he is, but he also wins over the cynical Roberts in that moment. This speech isn’t that good — her bar for excellence must be shockingly low.

Will This Movie Make You Nostalgic for College? You have to be a professional student to find Larry Crowne’s drab depiction of community college compelling. It’s as stirring as a University of Phoenix ad.

Final Grade: C-. Hanks was just trying to make a heartfelt movie about how Americans in the Great Recession were picking up the pieces and reinventing themselves. Instead, Larry Crowne was an ultra-smug love story that’s never particularly funny and is populated by an annoyingly quirky collection of young classmates who help middle-aged Larry get hip. It’s as enjoyable as watching your dad try to rap.

‘Old School’ (2003)

Name of Fictional College: Harrison University. (It was actually filmed at UCLA, USC and Harvard.)

How Much College Do the Characters Actually Attend? Yeah, not very much. The whole reason Mitch (Luke Wilson), Frank (Will Ferrell) and Bernard (Vince Vaughn) decide to start their own fraternity in their 30s isn’t because they have a fondness for campus life. They just want to be frat guys for life, which means skipping over the whole going-to-classes part. As close as they get is during Old School’s finale, where they have to pass different challenges to prove that they’re a legitimate fraternity. Memorably, Frank has to match wits with famed political strategist James Carville in a debate on the role of government in the advancement of biotechnology. Kids, don’t try this in real life: It won’t work.

Will This Movie Make You Nostalgic for College? Old School is sort of like dude-bro wish fulfillment in which ordinary guys are able to sleep with beautiful young women and be the cool guys wherever they go. If college were really like this then, yes, it would make me nostalgic to go back. But nobody’s college experience was like this — and if yours was, please keep to it yourself, okay?

Final Grade: C+. Before the Hangover films, director Todd Phillips was best known for the zany, dumb college comedy Road Trip. But he cemented his place in the Bromance Cinematic Universe with Old School, which is a raucous but pretty familiar rethink of Animal House without much inspired anarchy.

‘The House Bunny’ (2008)

Name of Fictional College: Unnamed, but the sorority is Zeta Alpha Zeta. (It was filmed at USC.)

How Much College Do the Characters Actually Attend? There’s actually not much “college” in The House Bunny, but Shelley (Anna Faris) — a former Playboy bunny kicked out of the Mansion for the unforgivable sin of turning 27 — teaches the adorable weirdos of Zeta Alpha Zeta how to be more self-confident so they can land guys. And she’s got an incredible memory aid for helping remember new people’s names:

Will This Movie Make You Nostalgic for College? Like a modern, gender-reversing update of Revenge of the Nerds — without being nearly as problematic as that 1980s movie — The House Bunny is a salute to all the hopeless dorks out there whose college adventures were more often catastrophes than wet-and-wild sexual shenanigans. And the movie’s depiction of fraternity life, though exaggerated for comedic effect, actually ends up being kinda accurate. Not all those houses were denizens of sex and booze — a lot of them, like, Zeta, have their share of painfully insecure nerds and proud misanthropes.

Final Grade: B. This silly screwball comedy really should have made Faris huge. Turns out, her co-star Emma Stone became the A-lister. The House Bunny wasn’t a big smash, but it’s become a cult hit thanks to its near-ubiquity on cable. Maybe in the future, people will properly place it as the worthy heir to Animal House — all the way down to its similar finale, in which the sorority sisters have to fight their rivals and avoid getting kicked off campus.

’22 Jump Street’ (2014)

Name of Fictional College: MC State University. (It was actually filmed at Tulane.)

How Much College Do the Characters Actually Attend? Not a ton, since Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are busy trying to find out who’s distributing a dangerous drug known as WHY-PHY. But Jenko does spend a little time in a History 101 class taught by a totally burned out Patton Oswalt.

Will This Movie Make You Nostalgic for College? 22 Jump Street nails everything that makes college the ultimate hangout nirvana. The weird, funny dorm-room neighbors … that cute girl you spend all night just talking to, slowly falling more and more in love with … the awkward walk of shames … the crazy parties … the sense that this perpetual fun will never end: The movie has it all. But it’s also a nice reminder what a bubble college is: One of the film’s best running jokes is how old Hill and Tatum look in comparison to actual college students. Once you outgrow those years, seriously, you can never go back.

Final Grade: B+. This is that rare funny comedy sequel, and its takedown of/homage to college is pretty stellar.

‘High Time’ (1960)

Name of Fictional College: Pinehurst College. (It was actually filmed at University of the Pacific.)

How Much College Do the Characters Actually Attend? For those who worship at the altar of Back to School­ — don’t worry, we’ll get to that movie next — High Time is its little-known predecessor. In the film, Bing Crosby’s successful 51-year-old restaurant owner Harvey decides he wants to go back to college — he missed out when he was a teenager because he was too busy working to get a degree. Harvey attends PE and science classes, flirts with joining a fraternity, lives in the dorms and romances his French teacher. We see Harvey over the course of all four years — including him given his valedictorian speech at graduation — and he has an absolute blast.

Will This Movie Make You Nostalgic for College? No movie on the list better encapsulates the entirety of what college is like than High Time — it’s a comedic soup-to-nuts layout of university life. Well, what it was like in 1960, anyway: Despite the title, drug use is not part of Harvey’s college years, and there’s a generally old-fashioned quality to this story of a middle-aged hepcat schooling the kids on how to be cool. So if that happened to be you in college, High Time will be a crooning, martini-tinged time warp.

Final Grade: B. Sure, High Time is square and dated, but it’s a very likeable comedy. If college was actually this wholesome and groovy, a lot of us probably would be more tempted to go back to our reunions.

‘Back to School’ (1986)

Name of Fictional College: Grand Lakes University. (It was actually filmed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.)

How Much College Do the Characters Actually Attend? Wealthy Thornton (Rodney Dangerfield) is worried that his son Jason (Keith Gordon) isn’t thriving at Grand Lakes University, so he tries enrolling in the school as well — even though he doesn’t even have a high school diploma. Soon enough, though — after endowing the college with a new business school — Thornton is on campus taking classes, including economics and English. Thornton may have a lot of business savvy, but he’s lacking in book smarts, although he figures his money can bail him out. After all, if you need someone to write about the themes of Kurt Vonnegut’s work, why not just hire the author himself? Actually, maybe that’s not the best idea…

Will This Movie Make You Nostalgic for College? Back to School is a quintessential college comedy: It’s losers versus jocks, the students versus the administration, and Rodney Dangerfield versus everyone else. It’s a safe bet that a lot of 1980s kids went to college assuming university life would be a lot like this hit film. Certainly, the movie peddles an awesome fantasy of hooking up with your hot teacher and sticking it to the man.

Final Grade: A-. Some of Dangerfield’s racial humor hasn’t aged well, but Back to School is the comic at his absolute best, and it remains one of his most enduring works. Deep down, all of us know we’re the same uncouth, snarky slob as Thornton, which makes his struggle for acceptance so damn universal. If college is about finding yourself, Back to School is the best salute ever to accepting what irredeemable bastards we are.