By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
6:15 PM EST, January 30, 2014
"That Awkward Moment," starring Zac Efron, Michael B. Jordan, Miles Teller and many beddable beauties, is technically about the moment when a woman wants the relationship to be something more and the guy walks away.
What "Awkward" is theoretically about are the ways that moment gets dicey when guys figure out they actually care about the females in question.
But what "Awkward" is actually about, albeit unintentionally, is how passing off misogyny for comedy has gotten so terribly passé, as insulting to the guys as to the young women. Including the actors. Jordan is currently up for an Independent Spirit Award for his excellent performance in "Fruitvale Station," so please remember him for that. Teller had a tart cheeky turn opposite Shailene Woodley earlier this year in "The Spectacular Now," with some of the sensibility of a young John Cusack. And Efron, well the "High School Musical" star keeps landing roles that represent near-misses at establishing him as something other than a hunky lightweight. Last year it was "Parkland," the year before "The Paperboy."
The issue is not with the premise per se. A great deal of fun, even R-rated fun, can be had at the expense of commitment phobia, or the way libidos can short-circuit the young adult male brain. But even cheesy romantic comedies need to raise the bar a bit these days to be relevant.
Hanging the humor on the quest for endless hookups, the color, size and proclivities of individual private parts and patterns in bowel movements — well, it's asking a lot. Particularly when Lena Dunham's current HBO hit, "Girls," is as smart as it is brash and years earlier Candace Bushnell's "Sex and the City" did the New York yuppie entanglement thing so deliciously.
Tom Gormican, in his first feature as writer-director, has cited his own experiences as a young single in New York and the fun of sampling the bar scene for "That Awkward's" tone. He also points to Shakespeare's "Love's Labour's Lost" as inspiration for the vow the guys make to stay single and spend their dating time sampling the wares. Shakespeare must be so proud.
The catalyst for all the serial romancing is the news that Mikey's (Jordan) wife, Vera (Jessica Lucas), is leaving him for her lawyer. Mikey's a pretty straight arrow; he wants stability. It triggers a buddy bonding moment with best friends Jason (Efron) and Daniel (Teller), all three pledging to forswear love for the foreseeable future.
Since the future is, in fact, un-foreseeable, temptation soon arrives. For Mikey, it's Vera and a chance to try to work things out. For Jason, it's a hot new author named Ellie (Imogen Poots), whom he first mistakes for a hooker — it's a long story.
And for Daniel, it's the very chill Chelsea (Mackenzie Davis), the girl/friend who's content to serve as Daniel's wingman on the pickup scene.
The film is concerned with the lifestyle of a certain class of New York single — the promising, the well-educated, the upwardly mobile, the attractive. Mikey's a doctor. Jason designs book covers for publishers. Daniel seems to be Jason's creative partner, but it's never clear what he does beyond deliver sharp verbal jabs, most of them aimed at the office's aging loser (Josh Pais).
When the guys are around the women of their dreams, they turn sentimental. They tear up, they speak from the heart, they care. And they lie — to the women, to each other, to themselves. It's a constant case of covering up — except when there is sex.
As base as Gormican has made the guys, he's come up with a better class of female, at least in a couple of cases. Ellie is by far the role model. Poots makes her sassy enough and smart enough to handle virtually any situation, especially a guy. Chelsea is a pragmatist, liking Daniel enough to play by his rules. Until the rules change and so do her expectations. Vera, on the other hand, is more naughty than nice.
All the couples spend a great deal of time in bed. And for those who are interested, nearly all of Efron is on display. Same goes for Jordan and Teller, but let's face it, on the disrobing front, Efron is the top-liner.
What makes this film particularly bedeviling is that you get the sense there is a nice guy behind this mess, one not so callous about matters of the heart. If anything, the raunch seems forced. The closer the film gets to real emotions, the more authentic it feels.
Gormican's New York is inviting, right on the cusp of prosperity. With the help of director of photography Brandon Trost and production designer Ethan Tobman, he achieves a kind of cluttered contemporary cool for the twentysomethings, and a polished elegance for their parents. I'd mention the costume design, but between the bed sheets and the towels, basically it's Bed, Bath & Beyond.
'That Awkward Moment'
MPAA rating: R for sexual content and language throughout
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Playing: In general release
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