Saturday, June 15, 2024

‘Blockers’ Nails the Laughs Better Than the Drama

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Kay Cannon’s Blockers doesn’t break the mold of the raunchy teenage sex comedy. It doesn’t necessarily turn the idea on its head either. But it does try and broaden the spectrum of people involved.

The annals of Hollywood are filled with raunchy vulgar movies about boys making a pact to lose their virginity. Sometimes it’s a friendly bet with a ticking clock, or sometimes it’s even just a summer of sexual misadventures. Usually the narrative is of the boys trying to lose their virginity. The girls are either objects, goals, rewards, or in some cases all three.

Blockers rejiggers the formula enough to where the girls are the ones on the hunt, but not enough to where they are the stars of their own movie. Blockers is tangentially about three girls, Julie (Katherine Newton), Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan), and Sam (Gideon Adlon), who make a “sex pact” for prom night. They are less the plot of the movie and, what else, the objects of the movie that propel it forward.

In reality, Blockers, as the title suggests, is about the parents. Julie’s mom Lisa (Leslie Mann) is the cool, hip, if a little overbearing mother who is growing scared of her daughter’s impending departure to college (hopefully in state). Lisa was a teen mom who raised her daughter by herself. The result is a strong and unbreakable bond that Julie fears might be weakening.

Kayla’s dad Mitchell (John Cena) is the overprotective but cuddly sweetheart jock. Mitchell is the type of father who takes great pride in touting his daughter’s athletic accomplishments but starts to stutter when confronted with her femininity. His wife, Marcie (Sarayu Rao) insists that he come to terms with the facts of life. Alas, Mitchell seems unable to cope.

Lastly we have Sam’s absentee and sometimes drunk father Hunter (Ike Barinholtz). After divorcing Brenda (June Daphne Raphael), he’s remained on the outskirts. Brenda’s married to Frank (Hannibal Buress) while Hunter has remained Hunter.

The trio stumble upon their girl’s plans when Lisa sees a chat message on her daughter’s computer, along with her acceptance letter to UCLA. Fearing Lisa will make the same mistakes she’s made, she and Mitchell decide to stop the girls from having sex.

The script, written by Brian Kehoe, Jim Kehoe, Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg, and Eben Russell has a structure and a destination, yet it just feels as if it gets lost along the way. If you notice, in the litany of writers listed there is nary a woman to be found. Which is telling when you notice of the three parents involved in the story, there is only one mother, even though the other two girls have mothers as well.

This is, partly by design, considering one of the things Blockers, attempts to satirize and puncture is the notion that a girl’s virginity is something to be jealousy guarded by well meaning patriarchal figures. The script cleverly shows us Mitchell’s slow slide into a sort of hysteria at the mere thought of his Kayla “becoming a woman.” Of all the relationships, Mitchell and Kayla’s seem the most believable. Cena is proving himself to be a comedic juggernaut. He playfully leans into his image as the jarhead “Father Knows Best” stereotype. Cena is aware of his Schwarzenegger-esque stature and revels in playing with our expectations.

In one scene Hunter kicks everyone out of the car so they can chase down the girls. Mitchell grabs the window. Hunter smirks, “You’re not Schwarzenegger.” Mitchell smirks back as he pushes the window down with his bare hands. Yet, earlier Mitchell was frozen with fear moments before when he thought he had found Kayla’s vibrator in fact turned out to be for her electric toothbrush. The two moments clash nicely creating a sort of kittenish ex-marine—fierce, but easily defeated.

Viswanathan, as Kayla, is easily believable as a woman who was raised by Cena’s Mitchell. A brash, no nonsense, and straight forward jock, she steals almost every scene she’s in. She has such a good head on her shoulders we wonder what Mitchell is so worried about. Comedic timing seems built into her synapses as she doles out lines about penises being like plungers without batting an eye.

Ironically of all the parents who have the least issue with their daughter having sex is Hunter. Hunter has been absent from most of Sam’s life. He nonetheless understands that it’s just sex and trusts his daughter enough to handle herself. “It’s 2018 guys. We have to empower these girls.” Hunter goes along more to sabotage the other two’s attempts to “save their kids”.

Of all the girls, Sam’s journey is the most interesting. If only because it actually involves some kind of actual change. Sam seems the most uneasy with the pact, going along almost out of fear of being left out. Then she sees Angelica (Ramona Young). Sam’s slow realization about her gayness is never played for laughs and is treated with an emotional deftness. Her date, Chad (Jimmy Bellinger), a fedora wearing ginger, is as shocked as anyone that Sam asked him to prom. It’s clear the way she looks at Angelica and admires her handmade Galadriel cape, Chad doesn’t stand a chance.

In fact, Hunter eventually only goes along with Lisa and Mitchell because he knows Sam is gay. Hunter is terrified that Sam’s decision may drive her further into the closet. While I never really bought the relationship between the two, I did appreciate how desperately Hunter wanted his daughter to be happy and comfortable with who she is.

Lisa and Mitchell seem hellbent on making sure their daughters never change. Hunter, however, can’t wait for his daughter to change, if only so that she can be happy. It seems odd to say, but I kind of love how Blockers doesn’t seem terrified, uncomfortable, or even a little bit  indecisive, about Sam’s journey.

Blockers, as a narrative, has zero problem with the girls having sex, losing their virginity on prom night, or really anything else the girls do. Even the characters, except Mitchell and Lisa, seem okay with it. Kaya’s mom Marcie (Sarayu Rao) is perplexed as to why Lisa seems so upset and is exasperated with Mitchell’s inability to accept facts of life.

Of the countless movies we’ve seen about teenage boys trying desperately to lose their virginity such as American Pie or any of the Porky’s movies, it’s refreshing to see one at least acknowledge girls in the same way. Oh sure we have drive-in classics like H.O.T.S. or Stewardess School, but those treat their characters no better than the ones who reduce them to the trinity of object, goal, or reward.

Blockers is the directorial debut of Kay Cannon, the writer of the Pitch Perfect trilogy. When Blockers is funny, it’s hilarious, but when it’s trying to be emotional it grinds to a halt. I’m not sure if it’s Cannon’s inability to navigate the tonal shifts or the failure of the script. Blockers is visually functional but little else.

Cannon shines in letting the girls just be girls and riff. She may not be of the school of dramatic blocking but she knows how to get a laugh. Leslie Mann has never been better. Cannon has a way of allowing her to fully embrace her gonzo physical comedic chops. At one point Lisa is trapped in the hotel room where her daughter is about to have sex. The scene is akin to a ballet as Mann rolls, crawls, jumps, and combat rolls her way to the door.

That scene alone makes up for any sort of awkward scene staging or boring editing choices. Cannon shows promise as she has an innate ability to know when to give us the wide shot and when to do a close up. Watch the vomit scene in the back of the limo and you’ll see what I mean.

With Love Simon and now Blockers, teen movies are seemingly starting to include queer characters without making them the butt of the joke. Blockers is clunky at times and has trouble nailing the moments it wants to tug at your heart strings. It doesn’t judge its characters for wanting to have sex, but it does judge those who think they have a say in whether or not they should.

Image courtesy of Point Grey Pictures

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