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Tropes Abound in "Awkward Moment"

"That Awkward Moment"—Dir. Tom Gormican (Treehouse Pictures)—2.5 stars

That Awkward Moment
Courtesy of Treehouse Pictures

Zac Efron (left), Miles Teller (center), and Michael B. Jordan (right) star as three best friends in “That Awkward Moment.”

Guys screw up. Girls pine. It is up to the man to make the big gesture when he realizes that this girl is “the one.” He holds up a boombox outside her window or waits for her by his red Porsche. A lady does not attempt reconciliation. It is not becoming.

This is the damsel-in-distress logic to which many romantic comedies adhere. It is, in fact, so commonly ingrained in their plot logic as to approach membership as a staple of the genre. And when, in his newest film, “That Awkward Moment,” Zac Efron’s character urges his friend to “do it like in the movies,” this is what he’s talking about.

At his beckoning, the audience envisions the ’80s teen film heroes for which Emma Stone longs in “Easy A”—John Cusack playing “In Your Eyes” outside his belle’s window in “Say Anything,” or Michael Schoeffling surprising Molly Ringwald in “Sixteen Candles.” Because it is almost always the man that manages to upset the puppy love dynamic established in the second act, it is, according to Hollywood, his duty to chase after his girl. When our leading man (Efron) follows his own advice, he is walking in the footsteps of these men. The audience is to believe it’s chivalry.

For a film that seems to consciously attempt a reversal of romantic comedy tropes, “That Awkward Moment” sure does end up playing right into gender norms. The film is the story of a triple bromance—Jason (Efron), Mikey (Michael B. Jordan), and Daniel (Miles Teller)—that vows to stay single after one of them is cheated on. They each encounter difficulty, however, when they fall in love and attempt to hide it from the others, hastening the inevitable moment in which each couple must ask, “So, where is this going?”

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To its credit, the film seems to have dedicated itself from the start to altering gender tropes, a decision that might seem refreshing considering the movie’s place in what we can call the “bromantic” comedy genre. It attempts this, however, by featuring men who engage in conventionally feminine behavior and vice versa—guys, it seems to say, can eat their feelings too, and girls are even more enchanting if they play video games and drink scotch.

In limiting itself to these stereotypes, though, these reversals ultimately accentuate gender roles instead of disproving them. At the start of the film, Jason reprimands Mikey for comforting himself with Ben & Jerry’s when his wife asks for a divorce, asking, “What are you, Bridget Jones?” When we see Mikey and Jason indulge in both ice cream and scotch near the end of the film, we are meant to take this as a genre-conscious demonstration of the pair embracing both their masculine and feminine sides. What it really signifies is a laziness on the part of the writing, which relies heavily on tropes throughout, whether they are spun into faux gender role inversions or not.

What’s more, these attempts at subversiveness are inconsistent. In the end, our main man is still jeopardizing his relationship with the woman he cares about because he is scared of commitment. It’s still his job to go get the girl—an act that prompts the Judd Nelson fist thrust that only reminds the audience of the genre-enforced assertion that it’s the man’s job to fix things.

These failures are made all the more annoying by the circumstances of the characters that enforce them—namely, that each of the main men is in his mid-twenties yet somehow manages to hold down a high-paying job and enjoy a huge loft in Manhattan. Certainly, the Lena Dunham aesthetic should not define every twenty-something film, but perhaps these characters’ oversights when it comes to relationships and gender roles might stem from their upper-middle class, heterosexual environment.

That said, the film is not unfunny. This is largely due to the standout performance of Teller, who is hilarious and charming in nearly every scene, and who seems to have earned laughs through improvisation rather than sticking to the script. The bromance between the film’s three musketeers is enacted believably, with much of the credit going to Teller and Jordan. Efron’s performance leaves something to be desired. His acting as the central character, however, seemed forced and unnatural, whereas his costars gave the onscreen dynamic a more natural, almost improvised air.

Nonetheless, the guys here are still falling in love despite their own sex. The girls are still drinking scotch and playing Xbox despite their own instinct to eat ice cream. Perhaps films whose main character transformations are defined by challenging their trope-enforced condition as men or women, such as Don Jon, might benefit by examining how, in their attempts to be cutting edge, they are saying something quite tired, dismal, and oversimplified about the way that the sexes interact.

Though the bromance charms throughout, at the end of “That Awkward Moment”, it still seems that bromance before romance is the order of the day.

—Staff writer Gina K. Hackett can be reached at ghackett@college.harvard.edu.

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