RATING |

On screen, we usually get a choice between one of two Melissa McCarthys.

There's the brash, loud, anything-goes wild card of The Heat or Tammy or Bridesmaids, or the woman she played in Spy – prim, suburban figure in a mom-sweater, thrust into a situation that calls for her to let her perm down.

Life of the Party aims for more the latter, but it vacillates between the two, to its detriment. Half the movie has a game McCarthy starring in scenes that live up to the promise of the movie's title ('80s dance off! Bust a move!), and yet there are major plot points built around this same woman's fear of public speaking.

It has you longing for the narrative consistency of Rodney Dangerfield's Back to School, a movie that has the same general plot – parents attending the same college as their kids.

In Life of the Party, McCarthy is Deanna, a homemaker who drops her college senior daughter Maddy (Molly Gordon) off at school. In the car ride home, husband Dan (Matt Walsh) tells her he's filing for divorce. A stunned Deanna has a few days to consider an empty nest compounded by a busted marriage, and decides to reclaim her abandoned dream of finishing her own senior year at college — by enrolling in the same school as Maddy.

McCarthy plays Deanna as unflaggingly earnest and chipper — she buys a wardrobe of school-brand apparel and fan gear, which she wears as she walks across campus high-fiving fellow students who are alternately confused and charmed by her throwback optimism and spirit. Writer-director Ben Falcone (he directed Tammy and happens to be McCarthy's husband) gives McCarthy a spooky goth roommate (Heidi Gardner) in part to underscore Deanna's bright-side demeanor.

Deanna starts to become a fixture at Maddy's sorority, and we expect mother and daughter to clash, but here the movie throws one of its few curves — Deanna's maternal boosterism turns out to be good not only for Maddy, but for all of the young women in the house, who come to rely on her support during a stressful senior year.

Her speeches about sisterhood and self-esteem, though, are at odds with the movie's habit of humiliating female characters — a couple of campus mean girls, and particularly the frosty blonde siren (Julie Bowen) who intends to marry Deanna's ex.

The movie's most ill-judged scene has Deanna trashing their wedding reception, which is inconsistent with Deanna's character, but consistent with Falcone's wish to place McCarthy at the center of as many broad comic set pieces as possible — eating too many marijuana cookies, drinking too much tequila, sweating her way through an oral presentation in archaeology class.

McCarthy gets assistance from a large army of supporting players — comedy pros like Maya Rudolph, who plays her best friend, her sorority sister Gillian Jacobs, and her father, Stephen Root.

Most have achieved better results, leading to the conclusion that there is a problem here with the curriculum.

MOVIES

Life of the Party

  • Directed by Ben Falcone. With Melissa McCarthy, Molly Gordon, Maya Rudolph, Matt Walsh and Stephen Root. Distributed by  New Line Cinema.
  • Running time: 1 hour, 45 mins.
  • Parents guide: PG-13 (language, drug use)
  • Playing at: Area theaters