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‘Life of the Party’ offers familiar fun

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It seems as though we don’t get the same kinds of breakout comedies in the summer that we once did. The season has become overrun with blockbusters, and while I love superheroes and explosions as much as anyone and more than most, it’s nice to change it up once in a while. And occasionally, a comedy will achieve significant summertime success. A lot of factors have to line up for it to happen – timeliness, star power, subject matter, broad appeal and more – for a comedy to be that movie.

“Life of the Party” is not that movie.

That’s not to say it’s bad. It isn’t. It’s a fine example of a Melissa McCarthy vehicle, a film constructed primarily to allow her to unleash her own particular brand of mania and physicality on the viewing public. If you dig that – as I do – then you’re going to have a great time. It’s not a game changer or a paradigm shifter or any other box office buzzword. It’s just a reasonably fun time at the movies. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

McCarthy stars as Deanna, a wife and mother struggling with the growing-up of her daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon, TV’s “Animal Kingdom”). But her life is really thrown for a loop when, upon dropping Maddie off for her senior year at college, Deanna’s husband Dan (Matt Walsh, “A Futile and Stupid Gesture”) blindsides her with a request for a divorce.

Reduced to day drinking at a racquetball court with best friend Christine (Maya Rudolph, “The Emoji Movie”), Deanna comes to a decision – she’s going to return to her old alma mater and finish the degree she abandoned with just one year to go. And you can probably guess where she went to school.

And so much to Maddie’s chagrin, Deanna enrolls in school to complete her archaeology degree. She moves into the dorms and meets her weird roommate Leonor (Heidi Gardner, TV’s “SNL”); she makes friends with some of Maddie’s sorority sisters – particularly Helen (Gillian Jacobs, TV’s “Love”), an older student whose claim to fame is her eight years spent in a coma. She struggles with mean girls and her deteriorating relationship with Dan and even a surprising dynamic with a frat boy named Jack (Luke Benward, TV’s “Still the King”).

But even as Deanna makes friends and grows closer with Maddie, there are still plenty of obstacles to overcome. The choices that she makes – good and bad alike – are what will ultimately help her find her place in the new world in which she has landed.

“Life of the Party” is the third movie that has seen McCarthy team up with husband Ben Falcone after 2014’s “Tammy” and 2016’s “The Boss.” For this one, he directed and the two co-wrote the script together. And there’s no denying that the two have a certain feel for the potential inherent to McCarthy’s energy and comedic persona. However, for the film to be anything more than an amusing trifle (not that there’s anything wrong with trifles), it seems like there perhaps needed to be at least one more person in the room.

To be fair, this one dialed back the physicality from earlier efforts and allowed McCarthy a shot at something that was at least a little more nuanced. Not subtle – never subtle – but with a bit of layering.

And it’s fine. Not great, but fine. There are some decent laughs and a couple of solid comedic twists. Think of it as something in the vein of the Rodney Dangerfield vehicle “Back to School” – in terms of quality, “Life of the Party” is somewhere in between how good “Back to School” actually was and how good the fog of nostalgia makes you remember it being, if that makes sense.

McCarthy’s energy is unlike anyone else currently working in Hollywood; there’s something about it that people find polarizing. You might find it refreshing, you might find it irritating, but you almost certainly find it SOMETHING. This film is a solid vehicle for her, although the truth is that this will probably be the third-best of her three movies this year (we’ll certainly be talking about “The Happytime Murders” and “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” in the months to come).

The supporting cast is fairly strong. Jacobs is weird and funny in a way that makes me think she’ll either struggle to land roles or become a superstar. You’ve got comedic pros like Maya Rudolph and Matt Walsh operating with ease and having fun doing it. Gordon does a lovely job and Gardner does a lot with a little. There are plenty of other quality players as well – Stephen Root, Jacki Weaver, Chris Parnell, Julie Bowen … the list goes on.

It’s easy to see that “Life of the Party” was a fun movie to make. And that kind of energy can’t help but make the experience better for the audience. There’s a lot to like here. Will you remember much about it two months from now? Probably not. But there are worse things than spending a couple of hours just having some fun in a movie theater – and “Life of the Party” gives you that.

[3.5 out of 5]

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