‘That Awkward Moment’ strains to find laughs and hide the fact that it’s straining

By Roger Moore
McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan and Zac Efron star in Focus Features That Awkward Moment. (Nicole Rivelli/Focus Features)

“So” is how That Awkward Moment begins every “awkward moment.” As in “So, what are we doing here?” Or “So, where do you see this relationship going?”

That’s the dating man’s lesson of That Awkward Moment, that “For girls, nothing good ever comes after ‘So.’ ” It’s a chatty romantic comedy in the modern mode — rude, nude and crude — with some funny, writerly riffs on relationships and how to avoid them.

There are laughs, in the lead couple’s “meet cute” moment in a bar, when she (Imogen Poots) trots out that fortune-telling trick common to sex-obsessed sitcoms: rebuffing a suitor by forecasting an entire failed relationship based on how a guy is dressed, the manner of his approach and his lame pick-up line.

But the movie, like star Zac Efron and writer-director Tom Gormican, never lets us forget that it’s trying too hard, straining to spit out sexy, silly patter, reaching for that raunchy costume failure at a dinner party, grasping for gross takes on trips to the toilet.

Efron, Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now) and Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station) play three New York pals who vow, when the doctor of the three (played by Jordan) is dumped by his wife, to stay single and enjoy the mingling. Together, they will build “a roster” of booty calls. And the moment a woman starts “the talk” with “So,” they’ll bail. That’s the plan.

Which all of them ignore. Jason (Efron), a smart-aleck designer of book covers, falls for this cute one-night-stand, Ellie (Poots), who works for a publishing house. The hilarious chatterbox Daniel (Teller) starts to realize that his gorgeous, able-bodied lady wingman (Mackenzie Davis) is all the woman he’d ever need. And Mikey (Jordan) clings to the hope that his cheating lawyer wife (Jessica Lucas) will hear his reasoned, “We checked off all the boxes” appeal to maintain their partnership masquerading as a marriage.

That Awkward Moment is a writer’s comedy, and it’s easy to see why this cast was drawn to Gormican’s script. It’s a less emotional, less consequential updating of About Last Night, the David Mamet play (Sexual Perversity in Chicago)-turned-movie which, coincidentally, will get a remake this Valentine’s Day. The quips and riffs are sharp and sometimes spot-on.

“Giving up eye contact,” Daniel cracks, watching how Jason acts around Ellie. “He’s ENGAGED.”

As Ellie and Jason stroll through the upscale neighborhood around Gramercy Park, with its locked “private” park, we hear: “New York’s charm is you’re surrounded by things you can’t have.”

Efron never quite holds his own with the much funnier Teller, whose swagger and confidence always seem to be compensating for his awareness that he’s nobody’s idea of a hunk. Poots, a British actress whose real accent only pops up in the outtakes at the end, is game but never quite achieves “You had me at hello.” Jordan has few demands made on him, dramatically.

The quirkiest “awkward moments” in the picture come from Josh Pais, as the pathologically shy and clumsy boss who re-introduces himself to his creative team (Jason and Daniel) every time he meets them: “Hi, it’s Fred.” Squirm-inducing and funny. The rest of That Awkward Moment isn’t awkward at all. It’s overfamiliar, a movie that plays like recycled, R-rated outtakes from Rules of Engagement or How I Met Your Mother.


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