Life of the Party
Directed by Ben Falcone
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, Julie Bowen, Gillian Jacobs
Rated PG-13 for sexual material, drug content and partying
1 hr. 45 min.

Melissa McCarthy has proven herself one of the most adept comic actresses since Lucille Ball stomped grapes. You can say that about precious few. She just about stole Bridesmaids out from under Kristen Wiig’s nose, and the highlight of This Is 40 was her scene in the principal’s office. Even the outtakes literally caused popcorn kernels to fly out of the mouths of anyone who dared to munch and watch. Her ad-libs were that funny.

Since appearing as the beloved Sookie in Amy Sherman-Palladino’s quirky Gilmore Girls, McCarthy has had her own TV series (Mike and Molly), fronted films like Spy and The Heat, and became Saturday Night Live’s hilarious embodiment of former presidential press secretary Sean Spicer. All were showcases for McCarthy’s undeniable ability, as is the aptly named Life of the Party.

Gifted with velvet-hammered wit and a talent for jolting and nimble physical comedy, McCarthy is capable of making you laugh with just about every tool in the box. For Life of the Party, she and husband Ben Falcone (who directed and has an amusing cameo) co-wrote a script that, truth be told, seems to hold back. The zingers sting oh-so-subtly and the physical aspects are dialed back to just a few. If the film had more of the raw and raucous, it might be an even more rewarding watch. But I gather that wasn’t the goal.

We have a movie here that is light-humored, for the most part, without being lightweight. A more feathery Back to School (see, Rodney Dangerfield! You did get respect.)

McCarthy is Deanna, an effervescent mom dropping off her daughter, Maddie (Molly Gordon), at college. On the way home, her husband (Matt Walsh) announces that he’s dumping her for a realtor (Modern Family’s Julie Bowen). “Making an upgrade,” as he calls it.

Crushed, Deanna is also rueful when she considers that she gave up her dreams of graduating from college herself, sacrificing her education for marriage and a brand-new daughter. She decides to rectify that by enrolling in the very same school that her daughter’s attending, much to Maddie’s initial consternation.

Life of the Party is not chock-full of situations you haven’t seen in previous “adults return to college” films. The funny stuff lands, but you must be alert — the one-liners are deft and quick and similar to a tick bite in that it may take a while to feel them. McCarthy, in her limb-flailing pratfalls, has a trapped-in-a-bouncy-house quality that makes you chortle out loud.

The cast is thick with Saturday Night Live cast members, past and present: Chris Parnell, Heidi Gardner and the deliciously audacious Maya Rudolph as Deanna’s brassy bestie, Christine. Community’s Gillian Jacobs plays an age-inappropriate member of Deanna’s college posse (“I woke from a coma after eight years, and went back to school.”). She, too, adds to an ensemble that’s heavy on comic chops.

There are surprises. Wait for them. There are also the requisite plot points of every film from this genre. You’ll see them coming down the street. That notwithstanding, Life of the Party is an easy film to enjoy. Could it have been funnier? Raunchier? A word-of-mouth weekend hit that would have sent Fandango into a frenzy? Considering the talent at play here, I’d say yes. Falcone and McCarthy have taken a gentler route with their comedy, however, and to see McCarthy’s skills at work, we’ll have to settle for their instincts on this one.