There is a moment in the new film BLOCKERS where you can visualize what the comedy could have been if it wanted to be smarter. Spying mother Lisa (Leslie Mann) finds herself stuck under the hotel bed where her daughter Julie (Kathryn Newton) is about to loses her virginity to her boyfriend Austin (Graham Phillips). Rather than listen to their lovemaking, God forbid, the embarrassed parent sneaks out in a contorted and sly way that feels like the best of a Blake Edwards comedy. She deftly hides behind the drapes, mildly electrocutes herself while managing to crouch behind the TV, as well as somersaults, rolls, and tiptoes past other furniture to escape out the hotel door. It is such sophisticated physical comedy, masterfully performed by Mann that it makes you wish the rest of BLOCKERS was just as smart.
As it stands, BLOCKERS is clever, but not nearly by half. It has a great premise in three panicked parents doing their best to keep their respective daughters from blithely losing their virginity after making a pact at prom. The film also has a strong cast with the previously mentioned talents, not to mention John Cena and Ike Barinholtz as the other two concerned adults, as well as younger stars Geraldine Viswanathan, Gideon Adlon, Miles Robbins, and Jimmy Bellinger. The LOL script by Brian Kehoe and Jim Kehoe certainly has its pulse on many of the cultural inanities at play in our modern times including the hidden meaning of text emoji’s, teenage slang, and the variety of recreational drugs at society’s disposal. They also have a very game and nude Gary Cole playing a naughty sex scene with Gina Gershon, which is the comedic highlight of the film. So, why isn’t it better?
It lacks sophistication. It treads down the path of gross-out comedies that want to outdo the previous one. If AMERICAN PIE showed Jason Biggs humping a pastry, then THE HANGOVER must show Ken Jeong’s flopping genitals. Thus, here we get a full-frontal Gary Cole, and for good measure, a close-up on his package. Yes, it’s hilarious, outrageously so, but most of the film’s gags are similarly content to pull at the same low-hanging fruit. If only the film had more scenes as refined as Mann’s hotel escape. This is a sex comedy and an R-rated one at that, but it feels at times as if it wants to be smarter than all those crude gags, even while executing them with flair.
Nowhere clearer is that conflict than in its back and forth between ribald comedy and self-righteous messaging. It wants to milk all of the lewd, crude, and sophomoric shenanigans that permeate such movies, yet continually weave throughout its narrative an unctuous sentimentality that plays as if it wandered in from THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. Moralizing is fine in comedies, as the likes of Billy Wilder and John Landis proved time and time again, but not when it is repeatedly done, let alone juxtaposed against such ridiculous comic visuals as showing beer spray out of Cena’s glutes during an ass-chugging gag or the gratuitous shots of Cole buck naked.
Not only does the tone veer back and forth like that, far too wildly, throughout the long-feeling 102-minutes, but the characters are written just as inconsistently. The concerned parents behave like utter imbeciles one moment, but then experience psychological perceptions after every raucous scene that suggests they know how idiotic they are. Yet, they keep coming back for more hijinks. The movie also seems to want to scold us in the audience for laughing at the nincompoopery on display, especially when its characters confess their heartfelt hurt and blubbering self-awareness. It seems way out of character, yet the movie continually stops to moralize like that, and after a while, it seems like we’re being lectured. It’s as if the film was directed by John Belushi’s Bluto one moment and Dr. Phil the next.
The actors are all talented enough to handle such tonal shifts, even if they’re abrupt and constantly jerk the story around. Cena is a gifted comedic performer and knows how to be soft and subtle too, but he’s playing a character that makes little sense. His macho, upright dad Mitchell seems to have wandered in from a clichéd sports movie from decades ago. Are we to believe that a man who’s married an Indian woman and raised a daughter to be sharp, confident, self-aware, and an incredibly intuitive athlete, would burst down hotel door after hotel door searching for his trysting daughter? He may have the lats of a gorilla, but would he act that barbaric in a public setting, terrifying dozens of teenagers with such violence?
Or for that matter, if Barinholtz’s Hunter is such a dirty-minded man/child of a dad, one cut from the same cloth as characters played by the likes of Jack Black and Zach Galifianakis, why should we buy that he’s really a remarkably knowing and wounded fellow? Then there is Mann’s mom here, a shrewd woman capable of dropping F-bombs with aplomb, and able to talk sex trash with her two macho conspirators, but nonetheless one that freaks out that her daughter wants privacy when it comes to her date night. Her put-downs of her daughter after she’s accepted into a picky and prestigious college like UCLA play as particularly egregious and does nothing to draw us to Lisa’s side.
This movie continually wants to have it both ways, with its contradictory characters and its zig-zagging tone. The movie tastefully keeps the bra on of one of the girls in bed yet has her prom date prematurely ejaculate all over her belly inspiring three jokes about his errant load. It has Mitchell throw Connor (Robbins) up against the wall after catching him half-naked with his daughter Kayla (Viswanathan), but it’s okay because the kid wasn’t hurt. And the three stalking parents nearly get killed in a car accident, that could’ve run the girl’s limo off the road as well, but everything is forgotten as long as the Uber arrives in time. The movie practically gives its characters and audience whiplash.
In comedy, exaggeration is necessary, and this one sails way over-the-top on numerous occasions, but the film wants to be able to sell its utterly serious, self-reflection as well and it’s hard to swallow when we’re watching ass-beer spray all over Barinholtz’s face like a hose was unleashed on him. If we are to believe that these irrational parents are as savvy as they all really are deep down, then why do they endanger so many lives and break so many laws during the story? Wouldn’t some soul-searching occur after events like that? And wouldn’t such sins put the kibosh on their selfish, interfering quest?
Granted, the comedy in BLOCKERS is often hilarious. The outrageousness of the set-pieces is such that it’s almost impossible not to laugh. Not only is the nude scene with Cole and Gershon the film’s highlight but watching the two male parents get involved in the scene and whisper back and forth while subtitles translate their panic is as funny as any scene in a movie the last two or three years. It’s probably amusing enough just to see such a game cast playing out this farce. But all that confessional psycho-babble keeps intruding on the fun and dampening it.
Director Kay Cannon shows a lot of flair for directing here, and many have complimented her and the script for being a feminist comedy. That may be true on some levels, but she’s no Greta Gerwig. LADY BIRD was a far more serious comedy than this one that leans farcically, but Cannon peppers her film with preachy screeds that cloy in ways that Gerwig never did in her female-driven, coming-of-age film. Perhaps the real equality is in how Cannon is able to make a raw and rude comedy as outrageous as the likes of ANIMAL HOUSE or THE HANGOVER.
Kudos to Cannon and her Kehoe screenwriters for treating the coming out of the bespectacled Sam with the sensitivity and nuance that many male directors would have botched. Yet, Cannon fails to give some characters much character at all. Julie, the centerpiece of the story, has little discernable personality. Newton, who was so vivid in a similar role in BIG LITTLE LIES on HBO, has little to work with here compared to the better-written characters of her BFF’s Kayla and Sam. Julie’s boyfriend Austin gets short-shrift too, especially compared to the other dates Connor and Chad. That uneven development of the characters is in synch with the uneven tone throughout the story, and the director and screenwriters should have smoothed out such inconsistencies.
Is it enough if a comedy film makes us laugh? On some levels, sure, but BLOCKERS wants to have it both ways. It wants to eat its serious cake and barf it up too, making the audience both laugh and cry. It makes for an uneasy mix, and despite the film’s unique focus on female sexuality, LGBTQ inklings, and showcasing adults who act more childish than their children, the film feels too often schizophrenic. Supposedly, the original title of the film was going to be COCKBLOCKERS until clearer heads at the studio realized that moniker would be a tough sell. Yet, right there is the problem with the film writ large. The very title wants to be ribald, yet sensitivity robbed it of its intent. If only Blake Edwards were still around to lend this kind of material some genuine sophistication.