Insert Movie Here, by David Bax
You know how sometimes a person who is trying to be funny will say something along the lines of, “Insert (blank) joke here”? Like if I were writing about the Anthony Weiner scandal and typed, “Insert surname joke here”? It’s a pseudo-sardonic way of recognizing a cultural cliché while both indulging in it and being too lazy to bring anything new to it at the same time. I was reminded of that exact irritating trope while watching Tom Gormican’s That Awkward Moment. In an early scene, a character played by The Spectacular Now’s Miles Teller, in an attempt to pick up a woman, mocks the familiar sex comedy premise of a high school kid making a bet to lose his virginity before graduating. It’s one of two truly funny jokes in the first act (the other being a small running gag about how none of the white characters knows who Morris Chestnut is) that gave me an initial blast of hope for the film. Very quickly, though, like the guy wanting to skewer a tired premise while perpetuating it, That Awkward Moment became a veritable survey in the exact kind of worn out devices Teller hilariously derided.
Teller plays one of three twentysomething New York guys who decide to each build a roster of female fuck buddies without ever getting into an actual relationship. Danny (Teller) and Jason (Zac Efron) are essentially already living that lifestyle but once their married friend Mikey (Michael B. Jordan) learns of his wife’s affair and his impending divorce, they decide to make it official-ish.
Now at first this is just an agreement. Later, though, in a sign of how lazily the film was slapped together, the characters start referring to it as a bet. It’s not clear when the bet was made or what exactly is on the line. What is clear is that Gormican thinks little enough of his audience that he expects them not to notice. Just like he expected them not to notice how contrived it is that the funeral for a character’s father should fall on Thanksgiving just so one of our leads will have to choose between commitments.
It would have helped things if the actors had been playing up to their potential. However, they seem as confused as to what the point of all this is supposed to be as I was. All three main dudes have been better elsewhere. Jordan’s talents are no secret and Efron showed a surprising depth of commitment a couple years ago in Ramin Bahrani’s At Any Price. Teller has been the subject of plenty of buzz, most of it deserved from his delicately human performance in last year’s mostly mid-rate The Spectacular Now. Maybe that buzz is what leads directors like Gormican and 21 & Over’s Jon Lucas and Scott Moore to place too much trust in him. In The Spectacular Now, his presence was rooted in easy confidence. Here, he is overly generous with his swagger, the sign of someone who is merely pretending to be confident.
The only standout in the cast is Mackenzie Davis as Danny’s previously platonic friend, Chelsea. Trading between moments of self-assuredness and uneasily proffered vulnerability, she alone makes a believable character. I believed she was falling for Danny even as I couldn’t think of a single good reason why.
Given that it contains the DNA of most every romantic comedy of the past twenty years, there’s nothing to be gained from seeing That Awkward Moment except for a lesson in the worst possible way to assemble a by-the-numbers story. That’s really the only impressive thing about the film. It somehow managed to be completely programmatic and a total mess at the same time.