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'Life of the Party' review: Melissa McCarthy, Ben Falcone comedy falls short

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Melissa McCarthy in a scene from the comedy "Life of the Party," in theaters on May 11. (Hopper Stone/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP) Photo Credit: AP/Hopper Stone

PLOT A housewife decides to go back to college and complete her degree.

CAST Melissa McCarthy, Gillian Jacobs, Molly GordonDebby Ryan

RATED PG-13

LENGTH 1:45

BOTTOM LINE Weak writing and halfhearted jokes run what could have been a hit for a talented star.

Few movie stars of the moment are as likable on screen as Melissa McCarthy. She has Tom Hanks’ innate niceness, John Belushi’s physicality, Robin Williams’ ability to switch from laughter to tears. As Paul Feig discovered in “Bridesmaids” and Judd Apatow learned in “This is 40,” put McCarthy in your movie for even one scene and she’ll steal it away.

Why, then, have her own movies been so bad?

A case in point is “Life of the Party,” the third film McCarthy has written with her husband, Ben Falcone, who directs her.

McCarthy plays Deanna, a housewife who, dumped by her husband of 24 years (Matt Walsh), decides to go back to college — the very same one her daughter, Maddie (Molly Gordon), attends. It’s a perfect premise for McCarthy, a near-copy of Rodney Dangerfield’s 1986 classic “Back to School,” only with a heart-of-gold female at its center rather than a male boor.

“Life of the Party” ought to afford McCarthy ample opportunity for the aforementioned laughs, tears and physical pratfalls, but those moments are scarce.

As with previous McCarthy-Falcone outings, this one suffers from vague writing and poorly-structured jokes that stretch even McCarthy’s abundant talent to the breaking point.

For starters, how does popular senior Maddie feel about her overbearing, fashion-challenged mom? Slight mortification turns instantly to loving acceptance, which is neither believable nor amenable to comedy.

Maddie’s sorority sisters include a few oddballs (Gillian Jacobs plays an older student sidelined by an eight-year coma), but mostly they’re a bunch of Hollywood hotties, a lopsided mix that prevents Deanna from fully playing either the feminist den-mother or the misfit Braveheart.

The film’s best subplot involves Deanna repeatedly sleeping with a handsome student, Jack (a very sweet Luke Benward), only to insist that it can never, ever happen again. McCarthy’s Deanna is so kind and confident in these scenes that our heart actually goes out to the guy.

It might be time, three films in (following 2016’s passable comedy “The Boss” and 2014’s best-forgotten “Tammy”), to ask whether McCarthy and her husband are really her best advocates.

“Life of the Party” is arguably their weakest effort yet, but it might have been a hit in someone else’s hands.

Putting McCarthy on the map

She first made a name for herself in the early 2000s as the good-hearted chef Sookie St. James on television’s “Gilmore Girls,” then became a major film star with her breakout role in 2011’s “Bridesmaids.” Melissa McCarthy ranked as Forbes magazine’s fourth highest-paid actress of last year. Here are four movies that put her on the map.

Bridesmaids (2011) It isn’t easy to stand out in a comedy ensemble with Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph and Wendy McLendon-Covey, but McCarthy managed it in the role of Megan Price, a socially awkward woman with a high libido. The air marshal she approaches at the film’s end is played by her real-life husband, Ben Falcone.

Identity Thief (2013) McCarthy starred as a con artist opposite Jason Bateman, as her victim, in this comedy from Seth Gordon (“Horrible Bosses”). Though tepidly received, it showcased the actress’ ability to juggle moments of broad comedy with vulnerability.

The Heat (2013) For this action-comedy — an early example of Hollywood applying female casts to traditionally male genres — McCarthy teamed up with Sandra Bullock to play a mismatched buddy-cop team. The film earned mixed reviews but a number of raves, and grossed a strong $229 million worldwide.

St. Vincent (2014) McCarthy played the mother of a shy boy who befriends a local reprobate (Bill Murray). McCarthy surprised many by playing the role straight, a break from her usual broad-and-brassy turns.

— Rafer Guzmán

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