With Life of the Party, Melissa McCarthy now has seven bona-fide star vehicles to her name stretching back to 2013's Identity Thief, three of them directed by Paul Feig, and three directed by her husband, Ben Falcone (Identity Thief is itself the outlier, having been directed by Seth Gordon). That's an atrociously small sample size to make any kind of generalisations about, but it's enough evidence to support a basic rule of thumb: the movies she makes with Feig are better, but she is herself better in the movies she makes with Falcone. This isn't a hard-and-fast law: Falcone's 2014 Tammy is unspeakable garbage. With Life of the Party, though, we get a much more engaged, creative McCarthy performance than in her last movie, Feig's aimless Ghostbusters remake, and a film that's overall more sure of the thing it wants to be. It's just that the thing it wants to be is very simple.

To wit: Deanna Miles (McCarthy) is a happily-married mom, though not without her share of regrets about the life she gave up when, 23 years ago, she dropped out of college after becoming pregnant, on the logic that she and her husband Dan (Matt Walsh) could only afford one person's worth of student loan debt. For as you know, if you drop out of college senior year, they refund the previous three years. It's not a movie that bears thinking too much. Anyway, it's the start of senior year for their daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon), and Dan has just announced with the abysmal lack of tact that seems to be his primary mechanism for dealing with life, that he wants a divorce, so he can go shack up with real estate maven Marcie (Julie Bowen). Devastated, Deanna decides to get that degree at long last, signing up for college right alongside Maddie and immediately making best friends with Maddie's sorority sisters, Amanda (Adria Arjona), Debbie (Jessie Ennis), and Helen (Gillian Jacobs), who is herself also way the hell old to be in college, on account of the eight years she spent in a coma, which has left her with some small level of internet celebrity.

In short: Mom goes to college, embarrasses daughter, but everyone else loves her. It pretty well writes itself, and the charms of the script co-written by McCarthy & Falcone are certainly not related to the film's unexpected twists (to be fair: it does have one unexpected twist, but it's a very expectable kind of unexpected twist, if you get me). Really, the only thing it's here for is to allow McCarthy to show off what she can do, and the results are perfectly enjoyable: she first plays a pretty standard-issue Nice Midwestern Lady mom type, and then loosens up a bit without ever quite abandoning the fundamental mom-ish qualities of the part. It taxes McCarthy not at all, and at its best feels like a less-than retread of the character she played in 2015's Spy (one of the Feig films). But this is what you can do when you are a proper movie star, and McCarthy is one of the best examples we have of such a creature here in the 2010s: you get to play mild variations on a few key tricks, and it will be pleasant and enjoyable for the sole reason that the film has been engineered around you. If you like McCarthy at all - and she is immensely likable, in the main - there's not much to find objectionable in Life of the Party, which is easily the sweetest, softest movie she has so far made; while there are a few stabs at the more ribald comedy of most of her film work (gag one: she has named her vagina. Gag two: she pretends that her vagina is a talking computer), it's the most light and pleasant thing she's done in features since pretty much ever, a much clearer descendant of her toothless sitcom Mike & Molly than her vulgar, violent characters in Bridesmaids or The Heat or Tammy.

The net result of this is a film that's hard to hate, and equally hard to love. It's so very neutral. McCarthy is charming, and the film quite refuses to challenge her: if you asked me to pin down the conflict, I wouldn't really be able to say what it is (it is not that Deanna and Maddie need to come to grips with each other, since that happens pretty early on; it is also not the genre's stock problem, that Deanna has to deal with an asshole conservative faculty member, since there isn't one. Dan and Marcie keep floating into the film being dicks, but they aren't really a problem to be overcome). It just lets her hang out, being in front of the camera, having a fun time being a Melissa McCarthy character. This is admirable enough, far more than the movie where her husband kept making joke after joke about how fat and off-putting she was, but it's not really a movie.

What makes it a movie, then, are its two best supporting performances. The film generally has a fine cast, including Stephen Root and Jacki Weaver as Deanna's parents, and Luke Benward as the dazzled frat boy who falls in love with her; it has a little bit of a problem with wanting everybody to be a goofy cartoon weirdo, but that doesn't do too much damage. Really, though, the film is all about Jacobs, and Maya Rudolph as Deanna's constantly-drunk best friend Christine, who steal Life of the Party as completely as Rose Byrne and Jason Statham stole Spy. They're doing two completely different things: Jacobs is playing the one wacky side character who feels somehow edgy in her weirdness rather than merely written to be colorfully "off", doing a lot to make gags work simply by keeping her facial expressions small and almost birdlike (the editor, Brian Scott Olds, also clearly adores her, ceding one scene after another to her reaction shots), and Rudolph is charging through her swozzled line deliveries like a linebacker, switching from gleeful humor to peevish rage with every line, turning a simple caricature into a potent comic figure. Taken together, though, they make the best possible argument for Life of the Party as a worthy filmgoing experience, and act as a wonderful reminder of the kind of great comic character acting that has always made middling comedies seem better and more classic than they necessarily earn.