Friday, January 31, 2014

That Awkward Moment: A Defense of Bro Behavior

Posted By on Fri, Jan 31, 2014 at 1:43 PM

that awkward moment zac efron michael b. jordan miles teller
That Awkward Moment: This movie was originally titled Are We Officially Dating?, so I can only assume the screenplay has been kicking around under other titles too, like: Not That Into Labels; Whatevs, Just Hooking Up; Facebook Status: It's Complicated (to avoid confusion with the movie actually titled It's Complicated); State of the Union (not to be confused with XXX: State of the Union) (actually, still probably confused with that); Add Me on MySpace, and, uh, let's say AIM for the Heart. My friends helped brainstorm a bunch of those, and I mention this not just so they don't sue me for intellectual property theft but to demonstrate that yes, young (ish) people living in New York City can indeed be quite funny. You would not know that from watching That Awkward Moment, even though that's exactly what the movie aspires to show.

I hate to put a nerd-chip on my shoulder, but fuck it: this movie is basically a bunch of handsome bros deciding they can totally do that hilarious riffing improv stuff that somewhat goofier-looking bros like Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, and Jonah Hill do in movies, like preppy assholes trying theater or stand-up comedy to pad their college applications. I don't fault Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, or even the less talented Zac Efron (despite the totally vacant expression he wears for much of the movie!); Teller has even been funny elsewhere, and definitely has the vibe of a cut-up. (He was amusing in the Footloose remake, of all things.) And obviously, obviously, handsome dudes can be hilarious: Paul Rudd! But whether written or improvised or written to sound improvised, the dialogue in That Awkward Moment has the same painful, deafening grinding that the Apatow Gang uses improv to quiet. It tries to imitate human speech, or get laughs, or something, by having characters repeat themselves a lot, because as we all know, saying stuff over and over (especially names! Boy does this movie think repeating names is a funny thing that any humans do!) is comic gold.

So to gin up the comedy in a scene where Efron wants to buzz up his are-we-officially date Imogen Poots and his buddies want to keep her out for a guy-only night (are you laughing yet?), all of the characters talk over each other while saying "buzz her in" or "don't buzz her in" over and over, like a community theater reimagining of Seinfeld. When Miles Teller does a riff on blowjobs, the main joke is him saying "blowjob" a lot of times. Compare to that to, say, the rhythm of Jonah Hill's hurried, swear-punctuated pleas to his home-ec teacher in Superbad: it's probably not much funnier on paper, but Hill makes it sing in the movie. Hell, compare any comedy scene in this movie to some of the riffs in Wolf of Wall Street, a movie that has a ton of other things on its mind and a three-hour running time, and still manages to have far more laughs per minute than That Awkward Moment.

I initially wondered why this very dude-centric comedy is coming out on Super Bowl weekend, traditionally a time for girl-friendly counterprogramming. But actually, That Awkward Moment, despite its relationships-from-a-guy-POV angle (because guys have so few platforms on which to discuss relationship bullshit), probably has just as much appeal to empty-headed gals as to empty-headed guys. It imagines that self-amused asshole guys are only acting like assholes because they haven't figured out this whole relationship thing, and also out of loyalty to each other. As much as the movie tries to find the sensitivity between bro behavior, it's actually a stealth endorsement of it. Ugh.

labor day movie jason reitman
Labor Day: Usually when a movie gets bounced from awards season at the last minute, it's pushed far enough away so that the studio or whoever can pretend it's just a regular movie that's coming out at a less loaded time of year. But while Jason Reitman's Labor Day was effectively removed from the Oscar race when a December/January platform release shifted to a one-week "qualifying" run in Los Angeles followed by wide release a month later, it's still coming out right in the thick of (endlessly protracted) best-of-the-year and awards coverage. (George Clooney's The Monuments Men, opening next week, is similarly close to the prestige-movie fray, just barely out of the January dreck parade.) The release feels like an awkwardly late party guest, but it shouldn't: Labor Day is exactly the kind of low-key, adult-targeted movie that should be coming out with greater regularity, and I hope it scrapes together decent box office returns opposite the Super Bowl.

At this point, Jason Reitman is reminding me a little bit of Sam Mendes in that he saw great success at more or less the outset of his film career; proceeded to make movies that sounded like awards contenders but didn't always go the distance (though Reitman has now racked up more Oscar nominations than Mendes); and in the process was backlash-dismissed as something of a middlebrow hack. But like Mendes, Reitman has often made movies that aren't actually middlebrow-enough to win awards—which is to say, middlebrow-enough to be accessible, but not whitewashed of any alienating elements. There's an old-fashioned craft, an attention to characters and actors and writing, that brings Reitman's work to life. Other directors working in a similar mode—Stephen Frears, say, or (shudder) Stephen Daldry—are far less consistent, and at least Reitman's movies are often funny. Labor Day mostly isn't funny, as it happens (though some may giggle during some of its stranger scenes), but it has a glow of real humanity even when going in bizarre directions.

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