That Awkward Moment: Film Review

The likable cast clicks, even as the testosterone-fueled comedy flails.

Boys will be boys as Zac Efron, Miles Teller and Michael B. Jordan take on sex and the city.

Resolved to remain unattached players, a trio of Manhattan buddies stumble into — gasp — serious feelings in That Awkward Moment. Itself an awkward mix of sentiment and post-Hangover raunch, the glossy rom-com retrofits the Apatovian template of emotionally stunted guydom for the twentysomething set. The wide release is primed for box-office love from younger audiences, who will flock to see topliner Zac Efron and his costars, both hot off breakout roles: Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now) and Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station).

The title of writer-director Tom Gormican’s debut feature refers to the point in a “casual” relationship when female expectations (time to step it up a notch on the commitment meter) intrude on boyish expectations (let the good times roll). But it also applies to the life stage that its bromantic characters find themselves in: moving toward 30, and running scared.

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A sitcom-y pact among the three amigos forms the flimsy premise. Jason (Efron) and Daniel (Teller), who work together designing book covers in the loft offices of a downtown-chic company, rally to support their doctor friend Mikey (Jordan), who’s blindsided when his wife (Jessica Lucas, in a woefully underwritten role) wants a divorce. In an act of solidarity with their wounded bro, Jason and Daniel pledge to avoid relationship entanglements while building their “rosters” with one-night stands. How this is a change from their normal behavior is unclear. But what matters is that eventually they’re lying to one another about their freewheeling status, and hiding deepening romantic involvements.

Gormican (who has a producing credit on the gross-fest Movie 43) leans too heavily on dick jokes, and the bathroom routine that’s an unfortunate defining element of Teller’s character instantly grows tired. In smaller, sharper doses, the frenetic testosterone shtick of these baby-faced blusterers might have worked better. The director handles his screenplay’s shifting tones in clunky fashion, although a few jolts of absurdity, courtesy of Josh Pais as a workplace colleague of Jason’s, hit the mark.

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But even when Gormican’s material tries too hard to be wackily crude, and not hard enough to make dramatic sense, the actors suggest layers of experience that help to fill in the gaps. The central characters’ contradictions resonate: These guys are trying to figure themselves out, though their chosen method is often avoidance. Among the thin setups and the gags that fall flat, there are well-played laughs and exchanges that capture something true about youthful ambition and the distancing strategy of self-irony.

A standout among these exchanges is the one that brings together Jason and Ellie (Imogen Poots) at a packed bar, when the wrong guy offers to buy her a drink. Although she’s smart, sexy, and down with Scotch and Xbox, Jason still retreats to booty calls with Alana (Addison Timlin), a sort-of-friend with benefits.

Jason and motormouth Daniel are of the goofy, immature type that prevails in contemporary American romantic comedies. And like their movie brethren, they attract smart, self-possessed women who aren’t necessarily three-dimensional. The movie’s two female leads, Poots and Mackenzie Davis, have been handed under-conceived, idealized constructions; their characters’ purpose is to understand the misbehaving boys, and to help them grow up.

Yet they’re intriguing, if not entirely believable. Davis is especially captivating as Chelsea, whose teasing friendship with Daniel morphs into something else. Avoiding movie-girlfriend default settings, she holds her own, whether trading putdowns with the guys or performing a soulful number at the piano.

The actors’ chemistry is crucial to making often idiotic behavior at least somewhat palatable. But unlike Judd Apatow, Gormican doesn’t insist that these boys and their growing pains are adorable. Jordan’s Mikey fares best, sympathy-wise — he’s the most sensible of the three, and the most openly vulnerable — while Teller and Efron offer more fleeting glimpses of their characters’ sensitive sides. As he did in At Any Price, Efron uses callowness to good effect, giving his performance a conflicted edge. Jason’s a good guy who can be more than a bit of a jerk, and there are no excuses when he badly fumbles in another character’s hour of need.

Whether the characters are hanging out in their apartments, crowded nightspots or bustling daytime coffee shops, big-city aspiration is a key element of the story. In a production that's solid and good-looking, if not distinctive, Gormican, DP Brandon Trost and production designer Ethan Tobman use the New York locations, from trendy Lower Manhattan to upper-crust Gramercy Park, to emphasize the sense of energy and possibility.

Production: Treehouse Pictures in association with Aversano Films, What If It Barks Films, Ninjas Runnin’ Wild Prods. and Virgin Produced

Cast: Zac Efron, Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Imogen Poots, Mackenzie Davis, Jessica Lucas, Addison Timlin, Josh Pais

Writer-director: Tom Gormican

Producers: Kevin Turen, Andrew O'Connor, Scott Aversano, Justin Nappi

Executive producers: Peter Schlessel, Lia Buman, Zac Efron, Jason Barrett, Michael Simkin, James Gibb, Darren Blumenthal, Manu Gargi, John Friedberg

Director of photography: Brandon Trost

Production designer: Ethan Tobman

Costume designer: Anna Bingemann

Editors: Shawn Paper,Greg Tillman

Music: David Torn

Rated R, 94 minutes