By Michael Phillips 2018-08-17

Chicago Tribune

2 1/2 stars

The back-to-school genre of collegiate comedies has given us "Old School" (Will Ferrell), "Back to School" (Rodney Dangerfield) and "Horse Feathers" (the Marx Brothers), among others. Melissa McCarthy joins that class list in the ramshackle, amiable "Life of the Party," about a woman, freshly dumped by her husband, heading back to college 20 years after she dropped out with a kid on the way.

Now a college senior, Maddie (Molly Gordon) runs a gamut of emotions when faced with sharing the same campus, and graduating class, with her unfailingly upbeat and smother-prone mother. But one of the better aspects of "Life of the Party" is the base-line affection these two have for each other. The movie's not as slapstick-dependent as advertised. It's a less coarse and more heartfelt project than McCarthy's disappointing headliner gigs, such as "Tammy" and "The Boss." (The Paul Feig-directed comedies "Bridesmaids," "The Heat" and "Spy" are far better.) The new movie renders matters of directorial finesse and comic technique essentially irrelevant.

How can this be? Well, the audience likes McCarthy, for every good reason. And McCarthy, working with her co-writer, director and life partner Ben Falcone, surrounds her character with a strong lineup of comic pros. Everyone's acting in different keys, sometimes in different movies, but whatever: I'll take Maya Rudolph and Gillian Jacobs in just about anything.

A literal minute after dropping their senior-year daughter back at fictional Decatur University (the movie was filmed in the Atlanta area), Deanna (McCarthy) receives news from her husband (Matt Walsh) that he's in love with a real estate agent (Julie Bowen). "Life of the Party" takes its sweet time getting Deanna into go-mode, but there are some good jokes en route to the inevitable decision to re-enroll for her archaeology degree. One I like: McCarthy's weepy, half-hearted poke at a framed picture of herself and her loser husband, up on the wall at her parents' place. Stephen Root and Jacki Weaver play the parents, and while director Falcone has an erratic sense of ensemble modulation -- it's every scene-stealer for her/himself up there -- his instincts for enlivening predictable setups is pretty sharp. Example: In an amusingly awkward restaurant sequence, bringing together Deanna with her best friend (Rudolph), the college boy Deanna met at a frat party (Luke Benward, sweetly smitten) and various other characters, there's an outrageous relationship reveal that works like crazy with an audience.

Deanna is a goodwill machine, improving the lives of everyone on campus: She brings her socially phobic roommate (Heidi Gardner, a witty skulker) out of her shell, and even gets the poorly written mean girl (Debby Ryan, of Disney's "Jessie") to rethink her entire worldview. This is after the '80s party dance-off in one of the many frat-party scenes. As for Jacobs, best known for "Community" and "Love" and the excellent Mike Birbiglia comedy "Don't Think Twice," she provides a screwy, eccentric charge of energy throughout. Some of her nonverbal reactions are so big, you can't believe she's even attempting them. But her character (a math-challenged student recently out of an eight-year coma) supports them, sort of. Watching "Life of the Party" you may find yourself wishing for a spinoff comedy for McCarthy, Rudolph and Jacobs on their own, as renegade guidance counselors or something.

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sexual material, drug content and partying).

Running time: 1:45

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