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Entries in That Awkward Moment [2014] (1)

Friday
Jan312014

That Awkward Moment (2014)

Charm Offensive

Your honor, I'd like my comments regarding January's lack of quality mainstream films stricken from the record. By now, you've probably seen the trailers for That Awkward Moment; maybe, like me, you decided right away that it's a perfectly skip-able pratfall comedy about Big Apple douches hunting pussy. I certainly wasn't looking forward to seeing Miles Teller and Michael B. Jordan take huge steps backwards from The Spectacular Now and Fruitvale Station, for the sake of giving Zac Efron yet another stab at bankability. But that just goes to show what a judgmental, reactionary prick I can be: this movie isn't a home run, but it's pretty damned terrific.

First-time writer/director Tom Gormican dusts off the trusty ol' high-school-sex-comedy template and tweaks it in key places. Instead of teens making a pact to lose their virginity before prom/college, his characters are mid-twenties professionals who vow to avoid serious relationships when one of their own is unceremoniously dumped by his wife. The sad-sack in question is Mikey (Jordan), the group's rigid bookworm-type, who finds his perfect path to happiness smudged beyond belief when Vera (Jessica Lucas) begins sleeping with a big-time lawyer (D.B. Woodside). Where most movies of this kind are all about advertising sexual conquests, That Awkward Moment revels in secrecy: the guys are all on edge not to get too close to any of their random hook-ups, for fear of starting a genuine relationship.

If that sounds like gross misogyny let loose in an STD-packed petri dish, you're not wrong. There's an undercurrent of sexual recklessness to the story, and Gormican teeters on the edge of churning out a bro-centric version of Lena Dunham's "Girls". However, the number of hook-ups these fellas may have indugled in before their agreement is mostly set aside, as the pact cosmically sets in motion the definitive love stories of their lives: Charming narcissist Jason (Efron) meets Ellie (Imogen Poots) at a bar, and works with her to scare off what we might presume to be an even slimier prospect. Detached clown Daniel (Teller) catches feelings for his "wing man", Chelsea (Mackenzie Davis), and begins to pursue something more than a "friends with benefits" situation.

No one will cite That Awkward Moment as a ground-breaking comedy. Unless this is the first movie you've ever seen, it will come as no surprise that secrets come out, friends and girlfriends are betrayed, and fake nail-biting drama abounds--leading up to the eventual guys-sitting-around-toasting-their-friendship scene. But a few things set Gormican's rom-com apart from the genre fluff we've come to dread.

First, it's really funny. Keeping in mind that humor is subjective,* I understand the film won't be for everyone. But I appreciate the freedom granted by its "R" rating. There's a great gag involving Jason's misunderstanding of what a "dress-up party" is, and some deliciously dirty banter between Daniel and Chelsea on the subject of blowjobs--neither of which would have been possible in a lower-rated picture, whose substitute for authenticity would likely have involved jokes centered on a funny accent, wacky changing-room montage, or characters falling down stairs.

Second, all of the actors bring a unique presence to a film that could have easily been a showcase for generic CW stars. I don't believe in meta-baggage when it comes to movies: one should be able to enjoy Teller and Jordan's performances, and understand what makes them such great actors, without having seen the films I mentioned earlier. And I think that comes across wonderfully here. They're alternately silly and weighty in truly actorly ways that strike all the right chords. As for Efron, his is the trickiest role, as he plays a cunning, vacuous charmer with a significant jerk streak pumping just beneath the surface. Many in the audience may assume that to be is real-life M.O., after a decade of being a chiseled, perfectly pouty Disney pop prince. To the actor's credit, he plays the part well and manages to cut through the surface just enough to make me want to see what else he can do.**

The film's secret weapon, though, is both a continuation of my "great cast" point and a huge surprise that few will likely see coming: the female characters (and, more importantly, the women who play them) are the movie's heart and soul. Poots and Davis make Gormican's uncommonly strong female characters into real people. Yes, they're attractive, witty, head-strong girls, but they don't fall into the Katherine Heigl school of prisses who just need a wild man to loosen them up. We get the feeling they'd have awesome, interesting lives had they never met the film's official leads.

Poots in particular sells the idea of a young girl falling in love in (and with) New York City. When Ellie and Jason sneak into Grammercy Park using a divinely giddy scheme, I immediately felt like I was on a first date--and not in the middle of some plot-point I'd seen a million times. For her part, Davis oozes confidence from her first scene without being "bitchy", and as she allows her vulnerability to seep through in her relationship with Daniel, we see that she's drawing as much out of him as he is her. In short, these are the closest we're likely to get to real-women characters in a movie ostensibly about empty sexual conquests.

In the best sense of the word, That Awkward Moment is a throwback to the waning days of the Brat Pack era, when the attractive, magnetic young powerhouses of the John Hughes stable left high school dramedies behind and tried their twenty-something hands at films like About Last Night... and St. Elmo's Fire. The characters in Gormican's world are similarly caught in the gap between self-absorbed, carefree youth and adult accountability--for themselves and their suddenly more complex friendships. This movie is much smarter than it looks, and has no business being lumped in with January's mediocre garbage.

*Case in point: I loved last year's Movie 43, which Gormican co-produced.

**One thing's for sure: Zac Efron loves to make me cry. Someting about close-ups on his watery eyes and red face as he reads heartfelt confessions of love during a sappy movie climax gets me every time. It happened in the better-than-it-should've-been 17 Again, and goddammit, it happened here, too. If you haven't already, feel free to disregard my opinion on this movie entirely.