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‘Life of the Party’ lives up to the return-to-college theme

In a joint venture with husband, writer and director, Ed Falcone, Oscar-nominee and Emmy-winner, Melissa McCarthy takes on a theme perfected by comedy pros such as Will Ferrell, Rodney Dangerfield, Bing Crosby and the Marx Brothers as a 40-something who is returning to college. “Life of The Party” has a sweet message of “do you,” but stops short of giving women any sweet revenge for the critical issues that plague them on college campuses.

McCarthy is Deanna, a frumpy mom with a hankering for pastel sweatshirts and matching headbands. She smothers her daughter, Maddie, in kisses during senior-year-drop-off at her college dorm. An otherwise perfect day ends abruptly when Maddie’s dad announces – a with an arrogant sigh of relief – that he wants a divorce because he loves another woman. Devastated, Deanna seeks comfort from her obnoxiously unfiltered bestie, Christine (Maya Rudolph), and decides that she will return to college to complete her degree … much to Maddie’s dismay.

What’s right about this film: While men have made plenty of films in this genre, McCarthy’s ability to stay in character as a doting mom who spreads her wings to the college experience shifts the narrative from one of chauvinism to cougar-ism. Living on campus – despite parents who live a few minutes away – gives Deanna ample access to her young frat boy toy, Jack (Luke Benward), who she ravages with the stamina of well – a sorority girl. While juggling the books and boys, she befriends her daughter’s sorors, Helen, who was in a coma for 8 years; Debbie, who is too polite to survive in the real world; Amanda, who is reduced to the lively Latina; and Leonore, her brooding, creepy roommate who hides in the shadows behind a camo cover. There is also an unconvincing duo of mean girls who serve as props for the “can’t we get along as sisters” spiel. In predictable fashion, Deanna becomes the unofficial house marm who gives the young ladies pep talks about their beauty, career choices and romance while whipping up a batch of lasagna.

Fans of McCarthy, who enjoyed “Tammy,” “Identity Thief” and “The Boss,” will be relieved that the chuckle-worthy scenes are dabbled generously and – when there are big laughs – they are delivered riotously in fine McCarthy fashion, though without her usual mad-cap physicality. Fans of McCarthy, who did not like the aforementioned films but enjoyed, “Spy,” “The Heat” and “Ghostbusters,” may be disappointed that the laughs are not full-out sidesplitting.

While Deanna is a polite character, there are moments in the film where raunchy McCarthy tries to peek through from the prosaic script: She owns an 80s dance-off with a forehead-mush-diss (you’ll know it when you see it), a classroom presentation goes uncomfortably wrong, and she plots to destroy her ex-husband’s Wedding Upgrade Day. Those are high points in the film which, unfortunately, ebb back to the genteel humor of a Disney special.

What’s wrong with the film: It tries to deliver a message of “women roar and take over the world,” but addresses a narrow spectrum of experiences. So really, only financially-privileged women get to roar and take over the world. Deanna’s parents offer to pay the remainder of her tuition when her ex-husband and his new wife refuse to support her financially. Deanna doesn’t want her parents to dip into their 401k and decides it isn’t meant for her to complete her degree. Sob. Hailing from the hackneyed manual of every college-based film, the sorors have a party to raise the money Deanna needs for tuition. That’s sweet but the quips that could come from her working and paying for college, missing student loan deadlines or meeting the requirements for scholarships would have been realistic without the pie-in-the-sky Christina Aguilera cameo.

Additionally, none of the faculty are female and the film fails to address how the women of color, women with cognitive or physical challenges, and women of modest financial means navigate and succeed in collegiate life after lasagna pep talks.

Oddly, the daughter’s boyfriend may be Jimmy O. Yang – we think – but the movie doesn’t care to expound on that interethnic relationship … or any other romantic involvements.

Comedy is a vehicle that brings the undiscussed to the forefront and gives voice to the underdog. If the underdog is a lady of privilege who ignores the comedy in the lives of those closest to her for her own self-serving needs, then comedy is dead.

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