By Preston Wilder
The world is changing, in fact it’s already changed. All that remains is for Hollywood studios to stop putting gross disgusting humour in their comedies – especially since their hearts are no longer in it, and they’re clearly only doing it to jazz up the trailers.
The ‘red band’ trailer for Blockers makes much of a “butt-chugging” contest which involves Mitch (John Cena) sucking beer through a funnel attached to his anus – then the beer squirts out and hits Hunter (Ike Barinholtz) full in the face (“Ass beer! Ass beer!” he splutters), and so on and so forth. The trailer could also have shown us the briefly-glimpsed couple who play weird sex games, one of which involves the wife squeezing her husband’s testicles (there’s an extreme close-up to illustrate the concept), or indeed could’ve shown the scene where a group of teens in the back of a limo projectile-vomit on each other. That’s all in the movie, prompting the following stray thought: at a time when 90s sitcoms like Friends are being labelled ‘offensive’ in some quarters for not being politically correct, wouldn’t a time-travelling 90s visitor be even more offended by today’s comedies? Why assume that we have a monopoly on self-righteous censure?
Absolutely true; yet also slightly irrelevant, simply because Blockers isn’t like that. The aforementioned scenes run about 10 minutes in total, and are wholly gratuitous (like I said, they’re just there to sell the trailer). They’re part of a comedy culture that began with The Hangover – or perhaps Dumb and Dumber 20 years ago – and is now petering out. They could easily be plucked out without affecting the rest of the movie, which is totally different: a thoughtful, even tender comedy about teenage anxieties and parents’ reluctance to let go – and also, incidentally, about a world that’s changing, or already changed.
Mitch, Hunter and Lisa (Leslie Mann) are the parents in question, diverse in personal circumstances (Mitch is married, the others single) but united in over-protectiveness. Their daughters have made a sex pact to lose their virginity on prom night, so the vigilant parents set out to ‘block’ them – a premise that seems to derive from the raunchiest of teen comedies, yet the film is surprisingly sober. For a start, the young people are incredible, in no way the sex-starved lunatics one expects from the genre. The boys are perfect gentlemen, to the point of seeming like fantasy figures. One likes kissing and cuddling (even) more than the act itself; another is so nonchalant about sex he almost has to be talked into it (I thought he might be secretly gay, but it turns out he’s just super-chilled). The girls are strong, well-adjusted and always in control. (One actress, Geraldine Viswanathan, gives probably the most charismatic teen-girl performance since Hailee Steinfeld in The Edge of Seventeen.) They’re different types – an athlete, a geek and a princess – yet also best friends. The big sub-plot is that one of them is secretly gay, in love with the school’s out-and-proud lesbian – but even that is treated with maturity and love by all concerned, both kids and parents.
“I mean, what year is this? It’s 2018!” declares someone, a mantra that could also be applied to this very responsible movie. The mantra itself is annoying (as if there were only one, monolithic version of 2018), but the film’s determination to fight the good fight in the midst of a cock-blocking comedy is rather sweet.
Diversity is well represented; Mitch has an Indian wife, Hunter’s ex has an African-American husband, etc. The Indian wife also gets the rather virtue-signalling role of chiding the parents on the double standard of trying to protect their daughters’ virginity (they wouldn’t do it if the girls were boys!) – though in fact the scene is saved by the fact that our heroes are desperately trying to get away while also nodding along with the wife’s PC rant (a nice snapshot of the way we’d all like to live a bit more virtuously, but keep being distracted by our actual everyday lives) just as the ‘butt-chugging’ contest is saved by the fact that Mitch is desperately trying to act young by agreeing to the contest, as if telling himself that sucking beer through one’s bottom is just one of those things millennials do nowadays. Blockers is smartly staged, overall.
Smart, progressive, thoughtful… how about funny? That, of course, is subjective – but I must admit the film lacks a certain lightness, its laughs (ahem) blocked by its rather self-conscious mixed messages. The premise is wild, yet the style holds it back. The respectful attitudes are new, yet the jokes are familiar – jokes about parents trying to figure out kids, puzzling over the secret code behind emojis, plus a lot of improv-style jokes with comedians arguing over trifles (the correct use of invisible scare quotes, stuff like that), throwing out random riffs and sporting metaphors.
Then you have the gross disgusting bits, which may be just a marketing strategy but they’re still, undeniably, there; it’s hard to go from heartfelt truth-telling to projectile-vomiting in a matter of minutes. Blockers, in the end, is transitional, a film on the cusp, better than the trailer but still a bit laboured; it does seem blocked, as if unsure of what counts as funny anymore. It’s a cautious comedy for a changing world.
DIRECTED BY Kay Cannon
STARRING Leslie Mann, John Cena, Ike Barinholtz
US 2018 102 mins