‘Life of the Party” isn’t a classic, but at least it lets Melissa McCarthy do her thing: throw her body around a room, wear bad sweaters, and blunder innocently into unfortunate situations.
She does this in most of her movies, but in half-baked projects like “Tammy” and “Identity Theft,” there’s also a tendency to lay on the schmaltz. “Life of the Party” doesn’t need us to feel sorry or sad about McCarthy’s character, although she does have a lot on her plate. It’s enough that she’s funny.
The central premise is well past its sell-by date: A middle-age mom, abruptly dumped by her husband, returns to college to finish a long-dormant degree. The added ingredient is that her daughter (Molly Gordon) attends the same school.
So we get a few embarrassing-the-offspring moments — yet not as many as you think. The main thing that works about McCarthy’s approach here (she co-wrote the script with husband Ben Falcone, who directed) is that once we get past the divorce announcement, there are no huge crises. Usually in a sitcom like this there’s a secret that gets revealed to everybody’s horror, or some kind of public humiliation.
Instead, despite a couple of mean sorority sisters, everybody is pretty much in this for the fun. Even the two sorority mean girls eventually come around.
There’s an amusingly age-inappropriate college Romeo (Luke Benward) to romance McCarthy, and an agoraphobic roommate (“SNL” cast member Heidi Gardner), and lots of Girl Power scenes with supportive classmates (notably Jessie Ennis and Gillian Jacobs, the latter as a woman who spent eight years in a coma, which is exactly how Jacobs’ spacey performance plays out).
McCarthy and Falcone are smart enough to plug in good people and see if they can juice up the fairly ordinary concept. So we get Maya Rudolph as McCarthy’s best pal, and Jacki Weaver and Stephen Root as her parents.
Everybody gets one or two laughs, but the movie feels improvised, and some scenes take off while others sit there. Because improv is like that. One interaction late in the story, a chance meeting with the ex-husband (Matt Walsh) and his new bride (Julie Bowen), is a sure-fire gut-buster.
Side note: Most of McCarthy’s best work has come in R-rated comedies, and “Life of the Party” is PG-13. You can almost see her dialing back the craziness in a couple of scenes, and it may be she needs the R rating to stretch out in full profane glory.
‘Life of the Party’ (2½ stars)
Melissa McCarthy ditches the schmaltz that hampered a couple of her big comedy vehicles, in favor of a straight-ahead exercise in silliness. It’s no classic, but the movie lets McCarthy do her slapstick thing, and it’s populated with good people and Girl Power. With Maya Rudolph, Gillian Jacobs.
Rating: PG-13, for subject matter
Showing: Alderwood, Cinebarre Mountlake Terrace, Everett Stadium, Falaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood Cinemas, Oak Tree, Pacific Place, Seattle 10, Woodinville, Cascade Mall, Oak Harbor Plaza