In the first five minutes, That Awkward Moment tips its hand with a loaded tableau: three dudes around a lunch table in a sun-soaked Manhattan cafe, play-by-playing the latest of their romantic travails. The trio—professionally stable late-twenty-somethings—comprises three distinct types, three disparate attitudes towards sex, love, and the entanglements in between. And their chatter is buoyed by wisecracks and penis jokes.
There isn’t an inherent problem with a Sex and the City for dudes—or, for that matter, a Girls for dudes—but this expository scene points to what this so-billed “bro comedy” actually is: a (very) thinly veiled standard-issue rom-com. It’s a dude Sex and the City for girls. Meaning, there are “bro” set pieces (a character’s below-the-belt ordeal involving suntan lotion, two characters’ excretory inventiveness when bolstered by Viagra, and so on), but they add up to a plot thanks only to the ubiquitous connective tissue of the generic romantic comedy.
It also means that That Awkward Moment, while sometimes funny, never musters the brilliance—the astute eye and the scintillating insight—of its self-determined forebears, and rarely the intelligence that it aspires to.
Our dudes are benign philanderer Jason (Zac Efron), vicious wit Daniel (Miles Teller), and wounded puppy Mikey (Michael B. Jordan). Wounded, because, as the movie begins, Mikey has just been unceremoniously dumped by his college-sweetheart wife for a lawyer who looks, says Mikey absurdly, like Morris Chestnut. Jason and Daniel rally to Mikey’s cause, taking him out, trying to get him laid, the usual. Soon after, on an aimless coffee-toting stroll around town—a device, like the cafe powwow, that’s repeated ad nauseam—Jason, Daniel, and Mikey make a pact (yes) to stay single.
But, naturally, Jason meets aspiring author Ellie (Imogen Poots), Daniel reconsiders friend Chelsea (Mackenzie Davis), and Mikey implores wife Vera (Jessica Lucas) to give him one more chance. You can see the complications and resolutions from a mile away.
Much of the film’s scripted dialogue is embarrassing in its triteness, its blatancy. Mikey, despondent, whines repeatedly about his broken marriage, “But I checked all the boxes!” Jason, who designs book covers for a living, strafes the beaten dead horse for good measure, seducing Ellie with this bit of intrigue: “I get people to believe in the surface, to judge a book by its cover …”
Similarly, almost all of the film’s observations of and commentary on 21st-century dudes in 21st-century relationships is elementary. Toward the climax, Jason spends about a minute Facebook- and Google-stalking a guy in one of Ellie’s Facebook pictures, while also narrating the sequence—something like “Who is this guy? Oh, let’s check him out on Facebook.” It’s intended to be funny in a revealing, This-Is-Who-We-Are kind of way.
On the contrary, the improvised comic dialogue is clever, often smart. Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now), the star of the film, shines in this regard, easily outpacing his struggling co-stars. He essentially plays himself, an unfiltered, husky-voiced, and smug-faced joker with impeccable delivery, a cynical aspect, and a knack for the cutting punch line. When Chelsea admires a dashing pianist, Daniel objects, “You cannot be that attractive and have a skill. That’s bullshit.”
Though it is a “buddy” film, the on-screen rapport between the three leads never gels into a chemistry, and this deflates the comedy. Efron’s talent isn’t as easy as Teller’s, so his lines more often fall flat. Jordan is shortchanged: not only is his a more melodramatic role, but his character’s storyline is treated as an afterthought. In group scenes, then, Teller is regularly carrying the weight and earning the intermittent laughs.
That the film isn’t a sharp portrait in the manner of a Sex and the City or a Girls is an issue of fundamentals. That Awkward Moment is, at bottom, a girl-oriented-genre film that describes boys, in rough outline and only the very occasional detail, to girls. Part of the almost subversive power of Sex and the City and Girls is that they articulate a female experience to a female viewer, such that complexity and nuance aren’t just game—they’re the whole flipping point. And it’s how the shows arrive at such finely attuned observational comedy. The awkward moment to which the title refers, then, is when you realize you’re a dude watching this movie.