That Awkward Moment is a romantic comedy that’s meant to pique the interest of young men and young women. The three lead actors are all charming and handsome. They also bro out a lot, talk about their boners, and there’s a running gag where one of them cannot leave the bathroom without taking a dump. Writer/director Tom Gormican knows this is not fresh territory, so instead of reinventing the genre he relies on the chemistry of his cast. There are even interesting points about male friendship and the fear of commitment, an anxiety that every twenty-something wrestles with at some point, I suppose. The biggest weakness, which is what ultimately sinks the comedy, is how Gormican has no interest developing any chemistry between the men and their respective love interests.
Mikey (Michael B. Jordan) is reeling from his recent divorce. He protests that he’s done everything right – married at 23, went straight from college to medical school – and so he cannot quite grasp the situation. His best friends Jason (Zac Efron) and Daniel (Miles Teller) ameliorate the problem the best way they know how: they take him to the bar to get shithoused. Mikey is too frail to pursue any woman, but that does not stop Jason from talking to Ellie (Imogen Poots), nor does it stop Daniel from charming Chelsea (Mackenzie Davis). The three friends see the single life in New York City as an ideal, so they make a pact that they will not have girlfriends until Mikey dates again. Gormican finds comedy and even a little drama when feelings interfere with said pact.
Teller, Jordan, and Efron have natural, lived-in chemistry. Rather than waiting for one actor to deliver the punch line, they share the joke, however profane, as if there is a deep bond between them. Individually, the leads are not as dynamic. Mikey is passive and melancholy; it’s the right choice for the role, even if Jordan has little to do. Daniel is comic relief, and Teller (who’s becoming one of my favorite actors) captures the gleeful energy of someone who trusts they’ll land on their feet. His scenes with Chelsea are an opportunity for comic riffing – Teller has a way of joking around so that both Daniel and Chelsea know he’s serious underneath – yet there is no reason to believe these two would fall for each other, other than the script requires it.
Jason is the alpha of the group, aka the protagonist aka the one who is the most cavalier about sex, so naturally he has the most to learn (and since we’re talking about Zac Efron here, Jason also spends more time naked than anyone else). Jason has all sorts of arbitrary rules and signals when it comes to hooking up (eg he believes any time a hook-up begins a relationship-defining question with the word “So,” then the casual part of the relationship is over). While he can use his rules to charm Ellie, he does not have any emotional follow through. There are interesting ways to go through these hoops, so it’s frustrating when Gormican resorts to cliches instead of actual character development. By the time Jason figures it out, the audience is five steps ahead of him. In a better romantic comedy, that number would be lower.
For all its faults and missed opportunities, there are few scenes in That Awkward Moment that are interesting and funny in a slight way. Daniel and Jason are graphic designers for a publishing company, for example, and they pitch covers for novels by women that are both shrewd and insulting. Gendered book covers are an actual issue, one that women authors must regularly contend with, and I like how Gormican combines that difficulty with the male gaze. There’s another scene where the script goes for the easiest possible visual gag, one that gets the cheap laugh, yet the scene ends with a tiny bit of character development, not anger. There are flashes of three dimensional characters here, which makes it all the more frustrating when the whole fails the premise.
It’s rare when I can pinpoint the precise moment where I’m taken completely out of a movie, yet it happens in That Awkward Moment. It is in the middle, when Jason invites Ellie to his apartment. Daniel and Mikey protest – they want to have a bro night where they play Halo – but make nice when she arrives. She’s holding a bottle of Bulleit Rye and says, “I brought scotch” in lieu of an apology. Here’s the issue: rye is not scotch, and all three bros would know this, especially given how much drinking happens in this movie. No one corrects her mistake. In a better movie, Daniel would make a joke at Ellie’s expense, then use the joke to develop a rapport. Instead, Gormican glosses over the mistake as if does not matter. Here is a director who does not know his characters, nor his audience by implication.