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Reviews

Between 2005-2016 I wrote more than 2,000 reviews for the Chicago Tribune's RedEye. Here's a good place to start.

'Blockers' is an odd mix of sweet and painful

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Life, especially for teenagers, can be an awkward mix of moronic attempts to be funny and deeply felt moments that linger far longer than feeble punch lines. Such is also the case for “Blockers,” an obnoxious and embarrassing teen sex comedy that is sometimes a sincere and winning character study of friendship and family.

The combination is, in a word, weird.

For what it is worth, the film hinges on a pretty good idea as far as high-concept comedies go: When Lisa (Leslie Mann), Mitchell (John Cena) and Hunter (Ike Barinholtz) became friends, their daughters were in elementary school, and an effective opening montage shows the progressing closeness of shared family memories involving classic traditions like trick-or-treating and Jonas brothers concerts. Now, though, their daughters Julie (Kathryn Newton), Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan) and Sam (Gideon Adlon), respectively, have decided to close out their high school experience with a prom-night sex pact, and clearly it is up to their parents to go out and block some, well, insert the rhyme.

In many ways, “Blockers” works better than it might have. Writers Brian and Jim Kehoe frequently acknowledge that the young girls are not damsels in distress who need saving, and the film takes what feels like a rare, frank look at teenage female sexuality by allowing its characters to be as horny and confused as their male counterparts. It also helps that Newton, Viswanathan and Adlon, extremely appealing and convincing as besties, actually look the right age for the characters. Just because it has long been common to cast 27-year-olds as high school seniors does not mean that the experiences and lessons do not feel far more authentic when the actor looks the part. So late in the movie, when Sam steps onto a couch to be tall enough to take a picture with her dad after she comes out to him, it plays as a genuinely moving moment. Barinholtz, delivering in one of his largest big-screen roles to date, looks so proud in the scene, and it is sweet, not corny, when Sam notes that her father is not taking a picture and he replies, “I’ll remember this.” In fact, it is a borderline miracle to have this nearly tears-inducing exchange in a movie that also features a comic set piece about butt chugging.

Yes, butt chugging, the bizarre trend that left the zeitgeist a while before the movie was released and is brutally unfunny whether viewers have heard of it or not. Poor Cena, whose natural goodness on camera makes a nice fit with his character’s good-natured naivete, forced to endure the sequence in which a high school kid challenges Mitchell to a butt-chugging contest only for the kid to fake participation while the clueless dad gets rectally hammered, inevitably struggling to remove the pipe after the one-person competition concludes. Yeesh. No filmmaker could make this knockoff of a knockoff of a Farrelly brothers gag play, and especially not first-time director Kay Cannon, whose inexperience saps “Blockers” of the zip it desperately needs. So what might have been a whirlwind comedy that matches the night’s high jinks instead labors to maintain interest along with its whiplash of groans and heart, with many scenes that could have used the comic energy of Cannon’s time on “30 Rock.”

This is also because the Kehoes’ script struggles to create any comic ideas of its own. One kid vomiting causing others to vomit bites from the iconic scene of “Stand By Me.” Mitchell locking eyes with a climaxing man (Gary Cole) as the trio of parents accidentally watches a couple have sex is taken straight from “The League,” and the rhythm of a car-related mishap ending in an explosion probably came from a half-remembered re-watch of “Road Trip.” Perhaps this is one of the reasons, aside from the ubiquity and box-office dominance of superhero movies, that fewer comedies are being made and fewer people are going to see the ones that do arrive. Most of their jokes now are just labored stabs at raunch and absurdity that, at best, serve as transitional moments for the story. Not that long ago, movies like “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” were hilarious and freshly ridiculous right up until the point where the plot had to kick in. “Blockers” is the opposite, where the attempts at humor mostly get in the way of the good stuff.

There are a few exceptions. When the parents discover the sex pact by stumbling onto a text thread of sex emojis, Mitchell insists an index finger extended toward a hole created by an opposite thumb and index finger does not mean sex, it means “You’re OK to me!” Disputing a claim that male genitalia is unsightly, Kayla explains, “Penises are not for looking at, they’re for use. They’re like plungers.” And Mann, always a welcome presence in movies good and bad, finds the right vulnerability when Julie asks if her single mom will be OK after she moves out and mom just says, “Me? Huh? Please,” walking away without ever answering in the affirmative.

That, surprisingly, is part of why “Blockers” ultimately overcomes its exhausting, poorly staged comic bits to register as a testament to the resilience of kids and follies of parents, both needing each other in different ways as time moves on, concerns change and life seems in constant state of transition. The kids are not worried yet about their friendships fading; it is the adults who are struggling to hold on and reconcile the present with the past. And Mitchell is shaken when he mistakes his daughter’s panties for his wife’s (after putting them in his mouth, of course) and thinks he has stumbled onto a vibrator in Kayla’s room. Not yet, dad. Just an electric toothbrush.

B-

This review will be published in next year's edition of Magill's Cinema Annual. Click here to purchase copies of collections from previous years.

Matt PaisComment