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Life of the Party **1/2

Melissa McCarthy goes back to school in this college comedy with a few surprises up its sleeve. 

Is it worth $10? Yes 

“Life of the Party” does not get off to a good start. Overbearing mother Deanna (Melissa McCarthy) and her emotionally distant husband Dan (Matt Walsh) drop their daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon) off for college. Deanna is tearful, Dan wants to beat traffic and get home. Then, bombshell: Before they leave the driveway Dan tells Deanna he’s leaving her for another woman (Julie Bowen). What’s a divorced, clingy mother to do after 23 years of marriage? Enroll at her daughter’s college and finally get her degree, of course.

These opening moments, including Deanna’s first few days at school, are tired and loathsome. She wears “mom” sweaters, doesn’t know what to make of her oddball roommate (Heidi Gardner), and is made fun of by mean girls. She even tells an embarrassing story about Maddie urinating in her underwear – how does Deanna not know she shouldn’t do this in front of Maddie’s friends?

You sit there dreading the formula you know is coming, and feeling sorry for McCarthy, who co-wrote the script and is better than what this trite material calls for. Because of course Deanna is going to catch her daughter’s boyfriend misbehaving. And of course Deanna will fall for her archaeology professor (Chris Parnell), who’s an old classmate of hers. And of course she’s going to impose on Maddie’s friends, and annoy everyone with her incessant mothering.

And then a great thing happens: None of the above happens. It’s as if co-writer and director Ben Falcone (McCarthy’s real-life husband) knows you think these plot points are coming, and consciously steers the story around these pits of predictability.

Instead of catching Maddie’s boyfriend (Jimmy O. Yang) misbehaving, he’s actually a sweet kid. Instead of falling for her professor, she starts sleeping with Jack (Luke Benward), who is Maddie’s age (and if you think she’s going to pathetically fall for him and be painfully rejected, you are wrong). And instead of annoying Maddie’s friends (played with cute innocence by Gillian Jacobs, Adria Arjona, and Jessie Ennis), they genuinely like Deanna and want her around. The film isn’t completely void of predictability (there’s a fundraiser in the end), but darn if it doesn’t do well in giving it the old “college try” at something new.

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Most importantly, is it funny? Yes. A fair amount of jokes connect, Maya Rudolph has some great one-liners as Deanna’s best friend, and there’s a plot twist that had the audience roaring so loud you couldn’t hear what the actors were saying next. That’s pretty good stuff. Throw in energetic supporting turns from Jacki Weaver and Stephen Root as Deanna’s parents and you have a heartfelt 105 minutes to enjoy.

Moreover, “Life of the Party” earns a recommendation because it’s a sweet love letter to moms (it’s definitely not a coincidence that it’s opening Mother’s Day weekend). There may not be much here for guys, but mothers, daughters, and/or a group of girl friends will find it a hoot.

Did you know?
Pop star Christina Aguilera has a cameo!

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