It has been thirty-five years since Risky Business, a sex comedy about a high school senior in the Chicago suburbs. These are the actors who play his aloof, distracted parents. Aside from an opening scene, they do not appear in the film (their presence is felt as the hero’s life goes out of control). I thought about Risky Business a lot while I was watching Blockers, a terrific sex comedy that’s also about high school seniors in the Chicago suburbs.
The crucial difference is this film, directed by Pitch Perfect’s screenwriter Kay Cannon, gives parents and their daughters equal screen time. The parents in the film are not disengaged or self-involved; they are from the same generation that was raised on John Hughes, so perhaps they do not want to repeat the mistakes they saw in The Breakfast Club. On top of all that, this comedy weaves between heartfelt and gross-out moments, marking an interesting evolution in where these types of comedies might go.
Five writers – all of whom are men – share a screenwriting credit, and sometimes it feels like Blockers is going in several directions at once. Kathryn Newton, Geraldine Viswanathan, and Gideon Adlon respectively play Julie, Kayla, and Sam; they are best friends who make a pact to lose their virginity on prom night. Their parents are played by Leslie Mann, John Cena, and Ike Barinholtz; they want to stop their children from being sexually active. These six characters all have different reasons for what they want: Julie is in love, for example, while the John Cena character is a helicopter parent who cannot accept his daughter becoming a young woman. Everyone is in a precarious position before the night is over, and someone even butt-chugs.
The key to the film’s success is how the characters act according to their natures, and not what the plot requires of them. Like the best comedies, recognizable human impulses inform their behavior, so the fun is how these impulses put them in absurd places. Julie’s mom worries that her daughter will act too impulsively after sex – she did something similar while she was young – so somehow she finds herself hiding from Julie and her boyfriend in a hotel room. Another shrewd choice is to avoid too much complexity: the set of three parents form one functional adult, while the three kids are still full of possibilities.
Sam and Sam’s father have the most substantive arc. Barinholtz riffs on the pathetic party animal character he has refined for years, but there is a sadness and wisdom beneath his “fun dad” archetype. At first, he is fine with Sam forming the pact. He knows she is a lesbian, even before she comes out to him, so her male date does not present a threat – until it does. Sam is still uncomfortable with her sexuality, and the tension behind Blockers is how she will embrace it. Cannon and her screenwriters resolve this sub-plot delicately, insofar that they mix body fluid gags with moments of acceptance and reconciliation. There is no “special episode” quality given to Sam and her father. To the film’s credit, they see a gay character as a possibility for additional jokes and insight.
If Blockers has a weakness, it is the Apatow impulse for flat compositions, like an episode of a sit-com. The colors here are bright and vivid, yet the filmmaking does not match the script’s wit. The only inspired choices involve the gross-out moments, including some full-frontal male nudity. Otherwise, Cannon is a little too unobtrusive, as if she wants to give her actors room to breathe. Cannon gets strong performances from her cast – Cena and newcomer Viswanathan, who plays his gung ho daughter, are the stand-outs – yet the sameness of the filmmaking gets tiresome. It’s been nearly fifteen years since The Forty Year Old Virgin, and too many comedies still follow its example.
That minor issue notwithstanding, Blockers is a shrewd comedy about growing up. It has the wisdom to realize that growing up is a process, one that continues for men and women who are well into their forties. The parents in Risky Business were lost causes, filmed in a way that suggested they would never experience feel passion again. The parents in Blockers are much more dynamic, and for all their faults, their love is what gives the film a genuine emotional core. It must be a relief for parents to realize they cannot fuck up their kids too badly, since many of them can still be fuck-ups themselves.