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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014

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In Movies & TV

Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan and Zac Efron star in "That Awkward Moment," now playing.

"That Awkward Moment" when the latest rom-com is a total bro-verload


Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan and Zac Efron are three tremendously talented young actors. Teller is heartbreakingly good in last year's high school romance "The Spectacular Now" (his latest, "Whiplash," won over Sundance). Jordan deservedly was in the midst of some Oscar talk with his tragic turn in "Fruitvale Station."

And scoff as you may at Efron's Disney origins, he's got a star's charisma, and his most recent projects – "At Any Price," "The Paperboy" and most recently "Parkland" – show him at least trying interesting and ambitious, if not completely successful, projects. I like all three of these young actors and can't wait to see what they do next.

Yet, for two smug and chauvinistic hours, I couldn't stand these guys. That's the power of "That Awkward Moment." It took three of Hollywood's most compelling, charming young actors, and forced them into inhumane characters and contrived rom-com scenarios that made me wish physical harm upon them (perhaps not Michael B. Jordan, though maybe by association).

Assumably named by a studio head's teenaged daughter since the meme-worthy phrase is never mentioned or uttered at any point, "That Awkward Moment" follows three hip and happening 20-something bros. Considering their trendy book art jobs, café-and-party hopping lifestyles and cozy apartments furnished with every piece of Pier One's man-child collection, perhaps a more appropriate meme-related title would've been "First World Problems."

After Mikey (Jordan), the most mature and adult of the bunch, suddenly discovers his wife wants a divorce – and is already pursuing other options, namely her lawyer – his pals Daniel (Teller) and Jason (Efron) decide to make one of those pacts that only seem to happen in Hollywood rom-coms. This one entails that the bro-umvirate will stay single as an act of solidarity. It's utterly out of the blue. Nobody involved in it seems particularly committed to it. It's an overall afterthought and there are no stakes involved, but somehow that becomes a crucial part of the film's narrative.

The bet also becomes the push – or, in a lot of cases, an excuse – for some enraging, idiotic and insufferable behavior, namely from Daniel and Jason. The former, the brash comic relief bro of the bunch, is a cocky, crude halfwit who smirkily jokes about being awesome at receiving sexual favors to a date, requests his wing-woman – who he had just slept with a few scenes before – to snag a girl's attention for him and lies his way into a tediously predictable rom-com conundrum.

He's Mr. Darcy, however, compared to Jason, a self-congratulatory chronic commitment-phobe, bordering uncomfortably with being a sociopath (ladies … ). His plotline is a loop of forced comedic and romantic scenarios in which he appears to ask himself, "What would a semi-decent human being do in this situation?" and then proceeds to do the opposite.

He talks about women like dishes on a dinner menu. After going home with a girl from the bar named Ellie (Imogen Poots, charming in a charmless movie), he bails in the middle of the night because he discerns she's a hooker based on evidence flimsier than melted Jell-O. He shows up to Ellie's fancy party in a flagrantly inappropriate costume involving a rubber penis (because he confuses "dress-up" for "costume too immature for a frat house") and seemingly refuses to take off said outfit. That head is put on straight, but the one made for thinking? The evidence would say otherwise.

The final straw is when Ellie's father dies – a man who he met and who accepted Jason even when his fake plastic member was slapping drinks out of his hand – he skips the funeral because he doesn't want to have to come out as her boyfriend.

Jason's overall behavior never particularly rises above selfish or contemptible, which makes it all the more insulting that first-time writer-director Tom Gormican thinks we're supposed to relate and root for him. We're supposed to find him flawed, but cute, sweet and clever, but he only ever qualifies as the first one, deeply so.

Even his grand romantic redemptive gesture at the end is astonishingly misguided, a self-serving non-apology that takes no responsibility, shows no growth and comes off as, "Whatever, sorry, but we can get back together, right?" It's the rare rom-com in which the happy ending doesn't feel happy at all, that our female leads could do so much better if the script didn't force them to settle for the schmucks the camera happens to be following.

I feel bad that I've lumped Michael B. Jordan's character into this. He's actually a decent guy going through an actually serious, emotionally complicated relationship problem. So, of course, his storyline is easily given the least amount of screen time. Instead, he's mainly there to eat ice cream and tell the other two guys that they're idiots. Actually, I think I like this guy a lot. He doesn't need to get over his soon-to-be ex-wife; he just needs to get new friends.

The script's attempts at humor are weak and forced, relying a lot on witless and unfunny conversational riffing a la Judd Apatow, banter and an off-putting amount of jokes about guys' private parts. The unlikeable characters, the illogical contrivances and the script's own bemused, aren't-we-funny attitude help smother any chuckles to be found.

Meanwhile, the film trafficks the same tired rom-com clichés, conventions and plot points under the impression it's fresh, funny and a bit frisky. Ooh, you're talking openly about hookers, sex and guys having "rosters" of women? How edgy! You call the transitional moment between dating and commitment "The So …"? How hip and "with it"!

I know "That Awkward Moment" seems pleased with itself and its self-appointed smart, knowing and honest take on modern relationships. But really, Gormican's script sticks right to the formula it thinks it's too cool for. It's the same needless deceptions, the same contrived scenarios and the same meaningful third act soul-searching, all while so blinded by its own irrational, self-congratulatory confidence that it doesn't realize it's attempting to get the audience to root and feel for characters who would be the toolbag antagonists in any other romantic comedy.

The only thing the movie has in its favor is its cast. Teller, Jordan, Efron and Poots are all certainly off to deservedly better material in the future (or so we hope). But here, they're wasting their considerable charms and charisma on a film seemingly written by somebody who saw "Bridesmaids" and thought Jon Hamm's character seemed like a pretty sweet dude. What an awkward moment indeed.



Theaters and showtimes for That Awkward Moment
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