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This image shows Melissa McCarthy, center, in a scene from the comedy 'Life of the Party.' [Warner Bros.]

Movie review: Melissa McCarthy gets the ‘Party’ started

In Melissa McCarthy’s new comedy, “Life of the Party,” she plays a housewife dumped by her husband and decides to return to college, the same school her daughter attends. Together they navigate the higher-education curricula of studying, partying, and hooking up — complete with a mother-daughter walk of shame. Sounds ridiculous, right?

Not so fast. Just as you’re about to write it one off as another of McCarthy’s woefully unfunny collaborations (“Tammy,” “The Boss”) with her husband-director, Ben Falcone, something shocking happens: You’re actually laughing. Yes, the third time’s the charm for the comedy duo, who also share credit for the script.

McCarthy is incredibly likable and relatable as Deanna, a middle-age mom at a crossroads. Until now, her life has been a string of sacrifices to benefit her ungrateful husband, Dan (Matt Walsh). Now that 23-year marriage is kaput, but it’s not all gloom. Her relationship with daughter, Maddie (Molly Gordon) is her bright spot. Ditto for Maddie, who doesn’t hate her mom and doesn’t roll her eyes whenever she talks. In fact, it’s Maddie who gives Deanna her requisite makeover, trading the glasses and ladybug-covered mom cardigans and capris, for contacts, a fresh blowout, stylish jeans and lipstick. It’s all to help Deanna get her groove back. And, boy, is she “down to clown.”

Deanna’s road to self-discovery passes through frat houses and frolics between the library stacks with a cute guy (Luke Benward) half her age. Deanna becomes the most popular girl on campus, and so endears herself to Maddie’s sorority sisters — Gillian Jacobs, Adria Arjona and Jessie Ennis — that they make her an honorary member and then get “jackhammered blasted.” Jacobs is especially noteworthy as the scene-stealing “coma girl,” slightly off her mental game after being unconscious for nine years. It’s a running joke that works more times than it doesn’t. Each girl might be playing a “type,” but they share a lot of chemistry and are fun to watch. To her credit, McCarthy generously dials it down so all of them have a chance to shine. And the movie is better for it.

Not every scene works. McCarthy, who nailed her Sean Spicer impersonation on “SNL” — is a great physical comedienne, and is fish-out-of-water fun on campus. But she also can be cringe-inducing to watch, and there might be one-too-many puns about archaeology, Deanna’s field of study. The climax is also a bit off, sending Deanna and her sorority sisters off to trash a wedding reception. The bit feels like a forced low point to set up the character’s redemption.

What does work is a story filled with heart and humor, with some inspired bits, improvisations, and one-liners, propped up by a game cast that also includes Maya Rudolph as Deanna’s best friend; Jacki Weaver and Stephen Root as Deanna’s still-protective parents; Julie Bowen as the other woman; and a trippy Heidi Gardner as Deanna’s recluse and somewhat creepy roommate, Leonor.

A subplot with a pair of “mean girls” (Debby Ryan and Yani Simone) has a nice pay off and an even better dance off at an ’80’s-themed party. The script also promotes female friendship and calls on women to build each other up instead of knocking each other down. McCarthy works in lines about issues important to women, such as equal work for equal pay, paid maternity leave. It’s an unexpected — and totally welcome — dose of female empowerment. “Party” on, girls.

— Dana Barbuto may be reached at dbarbuto@ledger.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.

“Life of the Party”

Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Gillian Jacobs, Maya Rudolph, Julie Bowen, Matt Walsh, Molly Gordon, with Stephen Root and Jacki Weaver.

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

Grade: B

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