That Awkward Moment is built on suggestions of real life, rather than depictions of it. Jason (Zac Efron), Daniel (Miles Teller), and Mikey (Michael B. Jordan) are suggestions of twentysomething men who hook up with suggestions of twentysomething women. Their New York City location is suggested by the characters’ smug bromides about what it’s like living in New York, even though by all evidence these they are only qualified to discuss what it’s like to walk around the same three-block radius of Soho (with a few detours to Gramercy Park).
This is a movie about human relationships that lacks any sense of lived-in humanity; only gesture and implication remain. The more the movie tries to insist upon the regular-bro chemistry between Efron, Teller, and Jordan, the more stilted it becomes, and the thinner their characters all look. The lack of dimension may also be attributed to the way the three men are defined principally by what they’re not doing: they have agreed, following a fissure in Mikey’s marriage to Vera (Jessica Lucas), to not start relationships, and instead stay single — in a show of supposed solidarity, although Jason and Daniel are already proudly single, which makes their gesture seem less magnanimous. Maybe they’re confused: “You’re gonna lose this bet,” one of them says at one point — nonsensically, because while the movie seems like it could be about three guys betting over who can stay single the longest, it’s actually not.
Whether bet or gentleman’s agreement, complications ensue — if you can call falling in love with pretty girls after making a vague promise to not have girlfriends a complication. This movie is made for young, good-looking men who never have trouble finding a potential mate, only from committing to one for longer than an evening at a time, which is to say it is also made for girls who bravely face down this non-conflict, which is to say this movie is kind of made for jerkwads, or at very least people who should be demanding more.
For example, these people might demand actual comedic moments in a romantic comedy — not just the suggestion of them. Writer-director Tom Gormican’s comic strategy involves a bizarre imitation of Judd Apatow’s: get the actors together and have them riff, or recite lines that are written to sound like riffs. When in doubt, increase the faux-naturalism by having them repeat words and phrases, just like regular people do.
This happens in scene after scene. One example: when Jordan’s Mikey tells the other guys about his failing marriage, he must recite ham-handed dialogue about “checking boxes” in his life plan, to illustrate the would-be pathos of a guy who — get this — thought he had it all figured out, but did not actually have it figured it out at all. Then his buddies try to riff on this terrible bit of screenwriting by repeating the word “boxes” over and over, like they can turn it into a Seinfeld episode by sheer stubbornness. What boxes? You checked the boxes? But did she check the boxes? Boxes! The repetition shifts the comedy from bad Apatow (with touches of bad Kevin Smith) to bad David Mamet, until it’s rendered weirdly abstract. When Mikey reports that Vera’s new man looks like Morris Chestnut, Gormican has the actors repeat the name “Morris Chestnut” four or five times, repeatedly asking in get-a-load-of-this disbelief, “Who looks like Morris Chestnut?” Is this a trick question? Far more confusing than someone’s resemblance to actor is the idea that these characters choose to mutually feign lack of understanding that a person could look like another, semi-famous person.
With all of this hilarious riffing, real-world details must be shoved aside. Efron and Teller play book-cover designers, and the movie is so clueless about what it’s like to work at an office that it resorts to making up utter nonsense. Their nominal boss, Fred (Josh Pais), always greets them by saying “this is Fred,” like he’s answering the phone, for the sole purpose of having the characters point out how odd this is. Making up alien behavior and then pointing to it and saying get a load of this idiot is not good comedy writing. Naming a character “Fred” so you can keep saying “Fred” and pretending that saying names is funny is even worse comedy writing.
But now I’m back to explaining how awful the comedy writing is in this movie, when I should be explaining how incompetent it is in its basic construction. When Jason’s charming one night stand Ellie (Imogen Poots) turns up at the office unexpectedly, for example, the movie is wholly unclear about why she’s there (I think we eventually find out that she’s a book editor, which doesn’t explain why the cover-design firm speaks to her like she’s the author of a particular book, or why she finds organizing a reading series so spectacularly difficult). All that matters is that Jason has senselessly mistaken her for a prostitute the night before. Cue laughter?
Poots has the toughest acting job in the movie, because she has to look charmed and amused as Efron keeps cracking the lamest jokes in the world. The talented Jordan, for his part, doesn’t even get jokes; because the movie begins by sifting through his wrecked marriage, his storyline is mostly serious and largely expository, and he spends a lot of time calling the other guys idiots. Teller’s end of this bargain is to act like an idiot, which is depressing because even in as something as silly as the Footloose remake, he was able to enliven the goofy-sidekick routine. Not here. Here, the guys resist relationships, but find them anyway. Girls get mad at guys, but like them anyway. And That Awkward Moment has nothing to say, but says it anyway.