Melissa McCarthy gives it the old college try but can’t overcome a script that feels like it has no stakes

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Melissa McCarthy gives college another shot in “Life of the Party,” a middling back-to-school comedy that’s about as funny as enrolling in summer classes. From “Back to School” to “Billy Madison” to “Old School,” adults returning to academia have long been a staple of the comedy genre.

And why not? There’s no adult anywhere slogging his way through an office job, that doesn’t long for the carefree days of campus life and the chance to eke out one more semester of laid-back living and partying.

“Life of the Party” should work, but it’s curiously stale, playing it safe while traipsing through comedy clichés like a Cliff’s Notes version of an original text. We get the creepy roommate who never leaves the dorm, the dramatic makeover scene, the accidental ingestion of substance-laced desserts, the showstopping dance routine, the big party to save the day and the surprise cameo from a big pop star. “Life of the Party” checks these items off the list like its working from a syllabus.

McCarthy plays Deanna, the mother of a college-aged daughter, Maddie (Molly Gordon), who is headed off to her senior year at college. As Deanna and her husband Dan (“Veep’s” Matt Walsh) pull away after dropping Maddie off at her sorority house, Dan informs Deanna he wants a divorce. Deanna, thrown for a loop, decides to re-enroll in college and finish off her archeology degree, which she gave up on years earlier with just one year left to complete. And she decides to do so at her Alma mater, which just happens to be her daughter’s school.

The reason “Life of the Party” doesn’t work is because it’s devoid of conflict and real world emotion. The issue at hand is not just with Deanna’s return to the world of college, where her cheery disposition and gaudy mom sweaters clash with the styles of the day. It’s with her sharing a campus and a social life with her daughter, which would mortify most ordinary kids, and rightfully so. Who wants to go to a frat house rager with their mom in tow?

But “Life of the Party” mostly pushes these issues to the side, while only paying lip service to Deanna or Maddie’s feelings about the sudden divorce. Maddie and her friends — including Helen (Gillian Jacobs of “Love” and “Community”), who plays a character who, for no reason other than a last second plot device, spent eight years in a coma — not only accept Deanna into their clique, they do so with open arms. This doesn’t feel genuine, it feels like a byproduct of a society that’s hesitant to make fun of someone out of fear of being labeled a bully. And it sends “Life of the Party” on a strange path, one where Deanna’s journey never feels like it has any real stakes.

(There is a bully character, a cardboard cutout mean girl played by Debby Ryan, but outside of throwing a few shady looks Deanna’s way, she never poses any real threat to her.)

McCarthy, teaming with her husband, Ben Falcone, for the third time (following the similarly passable-at-best “Tammy” and “The Boss”), works hard; she’s a veritable cheer factory, practically assaulting everyone around her with her sweetness. A few times, she’s so winning that she breaks through. Her character, meanwhile, is seemingly under the Poochie rule where whenever she is not on screen, all the other characters around her must ask, “where’s Deanna?” (McCarthy and Falcone co-wrote the script.)

As Deanna’s friend, Maya Rudolph delivers some of the film’s best lines. Elsewhere, the script is filled with the sort of rattling on of jokes (“oh no, I did not. I did though,” is one typical aside) and over-the-top expressions of hyperbole (one character says “this is the greatest thing I’ve ever been a part of” and “this is the best night of my life” in back-to-back scenes) that are symptomatic of our current comedy era, which likely won’t age well going forward.

McCarthy works best when her characters have a little bite — or a lot of bite, as was the case in her machine gun portrayal of Sean Spicer on “SNL” — and Deanna doesn’t have any. And because she doesn’t, “Life of the Party” doesn’t, either. It’s plenty nice, but comedy needs some teeth. And the only teeth “Life of the Party” has are in its over-excited smile.

agraham@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2284

@grahamorama

‘Life of the Party’

GRADE: C

Rated PG-13 for sexual material, drug content and partying

Running time: 105 minutes

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