02/04/2014 11:02 am ET | Updated Apr 06, 2014

That Awkward Demise

We are coming off the best year for American film in recent memory, so it seems strange to be predicting gloom and death right now. And predicating the prediction on an inconsequential movie by a 1st time writer-director might be overkill. But isn't that what the internet is for?

I actually like That Awkward Moment a lot more than the film critics who have pounded it flat and chicken fried it to a crisp. I agree it has plenty of jokes that fall flat and that it generally revels in male boorishness. But I also think that the way in which the central characters (Jason, played by Zac Efron, and Ellie, played by Imogen Poots) meet is rather clever, and I like how writer Tom Gormican echoes that meeting at the climax. I think Miles Teller, as the supremely immature Daniel, is funny and engaging (and is also the new, somewhat longer, Jonah Hill). And I like the way in which Teller and Mackenzie Davis's Chelsea serve as wingman and wingwoman for each other. So there are things to like.

Of course, there are things to groan over, including Jason's showing up at Ellie's classy birthday party with a prodigious dildo (an homage to Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights, perhaps) hanging out of his shorts, and Daniel's exiting Chelsea's family Thanksgiving party naked from the waist down. The fact that the two characters ended up 1) with dildo and 2) bottomless, doesn't bother me. The fact that they were apparently too stupid to 1) remove the dildo and 2) put pants on, bothers me greatly. Because these are supremely stupid things. I want to like these guys, but they are so far removed from normal people that I cannot.

And that's a big problem. And that's where the gloom and death come in.

32 years ago, another movie about young men not wanting to grow up and settle into meaningful, adult relationships came out. Like That Awkward Moment, it premiered early in the year, as befits a small movie for which no one has especially high aspirations. Like That Awkward Moment, it was helmed by a writer making his directorial debut. And like That Awkward Moment, it had an ensemble of young actors who were hovering between obscure and famous, looking for the right vehicle to turn them into stars. But in Diner, Barry Levinson succeeded in making a great comedy about boorish young men. How did he do it?

He gave us full-fledged characters, something Gormican is either incapable of, or more ominously, never even considered doing. In That Awkward Moment, one of the boys, Mikey (Michael B. Jordan), is a doctor. We even see him at the hospital. But we never get the slightest inkling that this guy could actually be a doctor, that he cares about medicine, or helping people, or getting rich, or whatever it was that led him to pursue medicine. His "doctoring" just provides a convenient plot handle, since the wife he is breaking up with has to come see him about an undisclosed condition. We learn virtually nothing about Jason and Daniel either, beyond their attitude toward women. Their jobs are punch lines or plot points. Any references to family or interests beyond women vanish as soon as they are mentioned. Efron, Teller, and Jordan are likable guys, and the script gives them some funny things to say. Beyond that, there is nothing remotely human or interesting about them.

Compare that to Diner, which offers five young men at various stages of development as it relates to adulthood, responsibility and the opposite sex. Billy, the most mature, has returned home to hopefully pursue a real relationship with the woman he impregnated. Shrevie, the only married one, worries that his passion for his record collection is more permanent than his passion for his wife. Boogie, the smoothest, has dreams that far outpace most 20 somethings. ("If you don't have good dreams, Bagel, you got nightmares.") Eddie battles the death of his own adolescence as his marriage approaches. And Fenwick, the most interesting of the boys, is a dissolute genius who has big-time problems living up to his family's sense of accomplishment. These characters are defined by so much more than their attitudes toward women or their one-liners. Even the sixth member of the group, Modell, who was not a major player until actor Paul Reiser improvised his way into the front row, has more clever things to say than the Awkward boys.

Sure, you can argue that it is an unfair comparison. After all, didn't Porky's also come out in 1982? Wouldn't that be a more apt juxtaposition? I don't think so.

Porky's was a pure teenage sex comedy. It aimed no higher. I think That Awkward Moment tries to aim higher. There is no nudity, and despite that dildo and running bathroom gags, it also attempts moments of poignance for each of its characters. But I worry we have lost, or are losing, the ability to appreciate that brand of meaningful comedy.

Here's a better refutation of my thesis: Her, Don Jon, Enough Said. Adult, sophisticated comedies that can be both funny and sad. My only counter is that they are exceptions. After all, 2013 was a great year. I don't know you'll find a lot of films like that spread out over the last 10-15 years. So to commemorate this current era of comedy, I've begun working on a little ditty (and if you're old enough to recall American Pie, feel free to sing along):

Did you say "Don't have a cow?"

And do you believe in Apatow?
If Bad Grandpa tells you so?
Are you praying for Ron Burgundy?
And the next Madea's Family?
Or are you saving it all up for Grown-Ups 3?

I'd write the second verse, but I have a DVD of Last Vegas waiting for me. Speaking of gloom and death and comedy...