‘Blockers’ Review

The sex comedy is something of a right of passage for each generation. From the raunchiness of the 1980s with Porky’s and Risky Business to the one-upsmanship and character-based laughs of American Pie and Superbad, the subgenre spans from the simplistic (sex is cool!) to the symbolic (it’s coming of age!). Blockers is simply the newest entry in the lexicon, meant for those bordering on Generation Y and Generation Z, and yet it also pushes that envelope even further. Equal parts genre-subverting critique, coming-of-age reversal, and laugh-out-loud romp, Kay Cannon elevates Blockers above the genre’s shortcomings to create one of the most enjoyable studio comedies in years.

Julie (Kathryn Newton), Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan), and Sam (Gideon Adlon) have been friends since they were five, which means that their parents – single mom Lisa (Leslie Mann), square Mitchell (John Cena), and troubled louse Hunter (Ike Barinholtz) – have been friends as well. As the girls prepare for prom and graduation, the parents have a hard time letting go of their babies. Their fears are elevated when they discover that the girls have made a pact to lose their virginities on prom night. Mortified at the thought, the parents make a plan to ruin prom for their kids and prevent them from doing the dirty with their dates.

What’s clever about Blockers is that it is and isn’t about the girls at all. While it has something smart to say about teenage relationships and discovering who you are and what you’re about (more on that in a minute), the true core of the movie is about parents coming to terms with their children going up. There’s a reason the bulk of the film is told from the parents’ perspective as opposed to the teen girls, and that’s because they are where our sympathies are supposed to lie. When we first meet them, the parents have only recently left their own wild days behind them – as they bond over their children’s fast-forming friendship, Hunter is pestering the other two to “Go get a drink.” The second scene of the film is a montage through photographs and videos showing us thirteen years of friendship, up until the point the girls become adults themselves, and this is where our plot begins. The crux of the movie is not “Will these girls lose their virginity?” Instead, the movie posits, “How will these parents learn to deal with the fact that their whole worlds are ending around them?” In particular, the film focuses on Lisa’s relationship with Julie, and how Julie doesn’t know if her mom will “be OK” after she leaves for UCLA. Meanwhile, all three parents are struggling with the fact that their kids growing up means that they are no longer young. Hints of this are found in their interpersonal relationships, designed to mirror high school drama themselves – they gossip about other parents, they each hang out with different “cliques,” and they still behave like adolescents. And then there’s the fact that the “crazy” parent, the wild card Hunter, is the one who most often serves up words of wisdom as the voice of reason. He only goes along for the ride because he understands that his daughter, Sam, is gay, and that her quest to lose her virginity to a guy would only confuse her and mess her up further. These are people fighting against the unknown with all their might, and scared of what will happen when their children leave them. In a lot of ways, the film plays as a comedic version of that Patricia Arquette monologue at the end of Boyhood, and it works all the better for it.

However, while the parents’ arc is interesting enough, the film doesn’t work if the three daughters aren’t equally likable, and their friendship and trials isn’t treated with equal importance. Each of the girls is unique in personality, yet portrayed with equal love and humor: popular Julie is smart and caring, jock Kayla is sardonic and blunt, and introverted, closeted Sam is nerdy and emotional. The portrayal of teenaged struggles and issues are both hilarious and sweet – the reveal that Sam is a lesbian is a comedic high point, but it’s nice that she is more misunderstood for dropping Smaug references than for liking the same gender. These are girls who are wise about their lives and their bodies, and the film wants us to understand the double standard in the media about the treatment of guys having sex vs. girls having sex. Why are the boys in American Pie treated as hilarious and “normal” while the girls attempting the same thing something requiring protection? These ideas are amplified when we meet the guys in question, and thankfully they are all sweet, caring boys who want nothing more than to make the night, the sex, and life in general as perfect as possible for the girls. There’s no pressure, no mistreatment, nothing objectionable – they’re just good guys doing the right thing. This serves as a contrast to the fears of the parents, and also points out the hypocrisy of a generation of parents who once did the same thing (it’s worth noting that the adults would have been in high school and behaving similarly to the cast of American Pie) trying to stop their kids from doing the exact same thing. At one point, one of the girls asks her parent, “Why is sex even bad?” And the parent has no answer. The film understands that these things, and this film, are a coming-of-age moment for the teens, and wants them to come to terms with what they know, what they need, and what is right for them. However, above all, it wants us to know that while sex is a part of life and something that happens from time to time (or a lot, depending on who you are and what you like), it’s the friendships we make along the way that are truly important. And while each girl makes a different decision about sex by the end of the movie, they all end up exactly where they belong – with each other, dancing the night away.

Of course, this thematic stuff is all well and good, but we all know what question exists at the end of the day: is this comedy actually funny? Well, I’m pleased to report the answer is yes. Both situationally and verbally, this film encourages you to laugh time and time again. It has a very clear understanding of the awkwardness of high school sex, and it milks that idea for all its worth. Viswanathan’s Kayla knows exactly how to deliver a funny line – I’m sure she will one day be as quotable as McLovin or Stifler. Her explanation that penises are not for looking, but for use – “Like plungers” – is bound to become an icon. When Julie attempts to lose her virginity on a bed covered with rose petals, she tells her boyfriend that it’s inspired by a romantic comedy called American Beauty, which inspires her partner to lovingly, but hesitantly, ask, “Did you…did you watch the whole movie?” Kayla’s date has a great running joke about his strange drug concoctions that sound both curious and awful at the same time. And when the characters finally make it to the prom, the film chooses to use both realistic and exaggerated portrayals of our own strange adolescence to earn laughs of recognition from the audience, even if there’s nowhere near enough grinding to properly mirror a modern high school prom. There’s the awkward breakdancer and the joy of photo booths to the forever-relevant declaration, “I’m not sure this was worth $85.” However, it’s the situational comedy that really makes the film shine. It takes pleasure in each raunchy, explicit, or vulgar digression, be it Gary Cole’s vinegar strokes (worthy enough to elevate this film by itself). There’s a butt chugging sequence that is not only funny and builds to a worthwhile payoff, but adds the joke that the only penetration we see all film is of John Cena taking beer up the rectum. And there’s a chase sequence/vomit scene that is inexplicably, wonderfully scored to The Marriage of Figaro. Unfortunately, this vomit scene also demonstrates the film’s biggest flaw: it’s too long. Every scene is funny in nature, but dragged out past its expiration date (sort of like every Judd Apatow film). At 102 minutes in length, the film would be damn near perfect if it had just enjoyed some smarter editing and gotten itself down to a much-leaner 95. I still liked the film a great deal, it’s just disappointing that it couldn’t have reached its full potential.

Amongst the cast, every actor brings their A-game. Arguably the biggest star in the film, the best performance comes from Leslie Mann, who makes Lisa sympathetic, over-the-top, and hilarious all at the same time. She’s never really had a truly great lead role outside of her husband’s flicks, so it’s nice to see her get a chance to truly shine with a meaty, physical performance worthy of her talents. Equally impressive is John Cena, who plays both on and against type as Mitchell. Cena plays Mitchell as a square dork who clearly hasn’t taken a risk in years, and yet simultaneously has the build of a superhuman. Watching Mitchell struggle with his tomboy daughter growing into a stunning young woman is rife with comedy (watching him freak out after chest-bumping her and realizing she now has breasts is a high point in the film), and he suffers the most of the three parents to comedic effect. It allows Cena to play both inside and outside his wheelhouse, and I enjoyed it immensely. And then there’s Ike Barinholtz, who gives the role his all. He knows how to deliver a solid one-liner, but he has three scenes that dig towards something deeper, and they stand out as some of the film’s best scenes. I actually muttered, “Whoa” after one of his more emotional moments. As for the girls, each one is a star to watch. Kathryn Newton is a star on the rise, and I can’t wait to see where she goes from the pretty, smart ringleader of the girl group. As mentioned above, Viswanathan is a wordsmith, and I hope she finds another script worthy of her abilities soon. And Gideon Adlon is not only the spitting image of her mom (the great Pamela Adlon), but she also has her gift for delivering dialogue and subtle physical comedy. As for the rest of the cast, a serious of cameos helps elevate the film from good to great, as any good studio comedy is wont to do. There’s June Diane Raphael and Hannibal Burress as the mother and stepfather to Sam, both of whom steal the film in their five minutes of screentime. Colton Dunn has some great lines as limo driver Rudy, and while their plots are kind of useless to the film’s overall story, I laughed my ass off every time Gary Cole and Gina Gershon show up (and we see little Gary Cole). And while he doesn’t quite steal the film, or stand out as much as the others, I want to give a special shout out to Jimmy Bellinger as Chad, Sam’s prom date. Chad is the nerdiest little high schooler I’ve ever seen, and yet he kind of owns it. His choice of fedora is almost as funny as the fact every character blatantly references (ironically, I assume) how cool the fedora is, and even after suffering a hilarious embarrassment, he feels worthy of the film’s final proclamation: “F*ck yeah, Chad!” F*ck yeah, Chad, indeed.

Blockers is easily the best studio comedy to come out of Hollywood in a long time. It is smart in its subversions and jokes, it puts time and effort into its acting and execution, and it breathes life into a tired, offensive genre. It may be too long, and it still isn’t quite perfect, but it does exactly what we want in a dumb spring comedy: it makes us laugh, it makes us “awww,” and it makes us show up in theaters. It’s the type of film that I wouldn’t rush back to see, but would still watch again willingly. Kay Cannon is a talented comedic writer, comedic director, and comedian, period. And I’m happy to report that this film earns its laughs through and through.

B+

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