Dumpuary Movie Report: The Naked Awfulness of ‘That Awkward Moment,’ ‘Ride Along,’ and ‘Labor Day’
When bad movies end with a blooper reel, you’re supposed to think This is how much worse it could have been! But really, blooper reels add insult to injury. You’re forced to acknowledge that someone actually was in charge of the dull, moronic mess you just watched. Remaining seated becomes a forensic opportunity: So this is how this was so bad.
That Awkward Moment is bad, but it’s scarcely the worst. It wants to be one of those we-had-a-deal comedies, in which the characters agree to participate in or abstain from some sexual or romantic rite, with Seinfeld’s “master of your domain” masturbation pact being the landmark of the genre. At some point, someone says, “I thought we had a deal!” The friendships fracture for a couple of scenes (or one long montage). Then coincidence or a “one year later” tag heals all.
A moderately smart movie would have pushed back against the formula. That Awkward Moment simply mistakes being obnoxious for being clever. Here, three Manhattan friends (played by Michael B. Jordan, Zac Efron, and Miles Teller) mutually agree to stay single, but just wind up closeting their romantic commitments. Even by the loose standards of bromantic comedy, these are outrageously low stakes. Jordan’s doctor comes home one day to a request for divorce. He wants to fight for the marriage, but his two buddies — they design “chick lit” book covers — want him to give up so he can seduce and carouse with them. What’s the price for violating the pact? What’s its point? It’s that dudes have to be dudes, and being a dude means going home with a girl you meet at a bar — as Ephron does with Imogen Poots — and trying to sneak out of her apartment because the thigh-high boots, envelopes of cash, and copy of Story of O in her bedroom spell prostitute. (Not only does Poots’s character show up a scene or two later as a prospective author in need of book-jacket design, she’s also the sort of character who, when Efron explains why he left, still continues to date him. I’d love to see the movie in which she sits down for brunch and tries explaining that to her girlfriends.)
The movie is going for a kind of Taming of the Douche. But none of the three stars is really up to the task. To Jordan’s credit, he’s playing the one least interested in being a jerk. He’s got a swaggering sweetness that makes the character’s refusal to give up interesting. You just don’t believe the movie’s version of the situation. It’s as if writer-director Tom Gormican heard that people get divorced and sleep around but has no idea what making either funny entails.
Anyway, when he gets to play confident, Jordan seems unstoppable. All the sexiness Efron keeps trying for, Jordan has coming out of his eyelashes. Efron has become a pleasure to watch. He’s Shia LaBeouf without the hot air and fifth shot of espresso. He just lacks the threat that can turn his hotness into danger. He might never get to Christian Bale in American Psycho or Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street. In this movie, he gets to be profane and pump his front into a woman’s rear. But, as an immoral star, he’s still only a Disney Family–level asshole.
Teller plays the most maladroit of the three. He softens the misogyny by treating it as something less galling. When a gentleman comes on to the friend (Mackenzie Davis) his character will spend the rest of the movie secretly sleeping with, he says, “You can tame her with tequila and compliments.” The insults gush from him as they do from Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill. Teller is also unusual looking yet happens to be a better, handsomer actor who can give the offensiveness a psychological changeup. Rogen and Hill project. Teller performs.
As actors, these three have little to do with each other. I was curious to see a movie attempt to harmonize them. To some extent, Gormican manages it, but the result just ends up being New Girl, but limp. That Awkward Moment plays with the cliché of pricks being princes in need of a princess. But I’m not sure the movie even believes that to be true. It’s both too cynical and too cute. One scene sees Efron and Teller present a new book design, explaining that women will buy any book with shoes on the cover, and one of the women in the room blurts out, “I love it.” Only in this fantasy would a woman say that. Only in this fantasy would bromance skip romantic comedy and shoot straight for dick lit.
Ride Along doesn’t end with a blooper reel — just more movie. It’s like an overflowing toilet. But for two weeks it’s been at the top of the American box office. This means there will really be no living with Kevin Hart, who was last seen being swatted away by the stars of Grudge Match. Even though this time it’s Ice Cube doing the swatting, the movie is all Hart’s. He squeaks and screams and talks the way Usain Bolt runs. In a big ensemble comedy — Think Like a Man, for instance, or BET’s Real Husbands of Hollywood — his humiliated mock outrage works because you’re not stuck with him. Given how big a hit Ride Along appears to be, we all are now.
Hart plays a do-nothing who’s been accepted into Atlanta’s police academy and needs the approval of his fiancée’s brother before they can get married. The brother happens to be Ice Cube, a detective who can’t stand him and drags Hart to work to scare him out of both police work and marriage. Needless to say, the plot twists, and Hart proves accidentally invaluable. The movie’s lousiness comes directly from its slap-together laziness (Tim Story directed; four credited writers typed). It could have been the farce of Training Day. Instead, the whole thing leans on Ice Cube’s scowl and Hart’s eagerness to please. Meanwhile, as Hart’s girlfriend, Tika Sumpter is meant to be a vision of tolerance and, well, just a vision. She spends the climax as a damsel in workout shorts and a top and seems — here, anyway — to have arrived from the Kerry Washington–Zoe Saldana–Gabrielle Union bougie-beauty factory. Also here, thanklessly, are John Leguizamo, Bryan Callen, and Laurence Fishburne, who actually bothers trying to give a performance. It’s bad, but it’s something.
All the while, Hart is jumping up and down, not listening, causing trouble. You don’t know whether to put him in another movie or a timeout. He and Ice Cube bring nothing out of each other. The movie is one of those Coors Light ads in which Ice Cube gets frosted by an inanimate can of sassy beer. Now the beer is Hart, who as a comedian has been begging for Hollywood’s attention for five years. He has it now, but you’ve got to believe he can do better than this.
I walked by posters for That Awkward Moment and Ride Along and looked around the theater lobby waiting for someone to say, “Just kidding!” Jason Reitman’s Labor Day is 111 minutes of a “just kidding” that never arrives. I saw the movie first last fall (and wrote about it then) and remain astonished by its earnestness and ludicrousness.
Josh Brolin escapes from prison and holds Kate Winslet and her teenage son (Gattlin Griffith) hostage in her stately New England home. We’re meant to find this scenario mysterious, but it turns laughable fast. At some point, Winslet complains about her bowl of spoiled peaches, and Brolin suggests making dessert. And so these two and the boy stand together mixing peach filling, their hands sloshing in the same bowl.
You can believe Reitman was drawn to the colors of Joyce Maynard’s 2009 novel, especially all the purple prose and the opportunity to toy with flashbacks. But the information in the flashbacks is so obvious that they turn the movie into camp. But Labor Day is too dreary for camp. It’s dramp.
The whole film operates on a level of foolishness that’s impossible to sit through with a straight face. Some of the embarrassment arises from terrible performances. Winslet can play confused. But she spends the film in a coma of bewilderment. It’s probably easier to pretend you’re asleep than to be tied to a chair or doing that pie sequence. This is no part for a good actor. This is no part for anybody. It barely works on the page.
The rest of the embarrassment comes from how peculiarly personal this movie feels. Reitman adapted Maynard’s book himself, and whatever he saw in it never materializes on the screen. The result is a gauzy, almost unreleasable movie that’s detached from its warmth. It’s as if Reitman identified with every ounce of florid nonsense in the novel and arrived to the set with no idea of how to film any of it. He goes for art, but it’s not art this material needs. It’s a lit match.