Sunday 1 April 2018

Losin' it: "Blockers"

Terrible title - made no better by the knowledge it's preceded on the poster by a giant silhouette of a cock-as-in-chicken - but Blockers arrives as further proof, after last month's Game Night, that dotty old Hollywood has suddenly remembered how to make comedies, if not perhaps how to market them. What's back in vogue is that tightness of plot the revolutionary Judd Apatow tossed to the wind in favour of semi-improvised set-ups: an over-extended first act introduces us to three teenagers (Kathryn Newton, Geraldine Viswanathan and Gideon Adlon) who've determined to lose their virginities by the end of prom, and the concerned parents (Leslie Mann, John Cena and Ike Barinholtz) who've found out about this sex-pact via a fortuitously open laptop, and elect to run interference. Writers Jim and Brian Kehoe and debutant director Kay Cannon (latterly a screenwriter on 30 Rock and the Pitch Perfect series) thereafter dust off the One Wild Night arc beloved of countless 80s teen movies: the obstacles faced by our guardians of decency will include those laws of physics the Fast & Furious films have sped around, and a commendably game Gary Cole and Gina Gershon as parents using their offspring's absence to refresh their own sex life. 

For those of us who grew up on the tatty and tacky sex comedies of the 1980s - Porky's, Meatballs and their ilk - the one eyebrow-raiser here will be just how genial Blockers is, and how relaxed and non-leery it is around the prospect of sex. The joke, from first frame to last, is that it's the oldtimers who have the weird and/or fucked-up attitudes, and that those can partly be attributed to their own bad experiences in the sack. One wonders whether this is the legacy of the broader-minded American Pies, although in a cultural climate where even episodes of Friends are being reassessed as if they were Triumph of the Will, perhaps even those might now be considered #problematic; the real gamechanger in this field - operating with too-scant credit, and a fraction of the viewers switching on for Mad Men and Game of Thrones - strikes me as Masters of Sex, a show that posited American creatives might start approaching intimacy without the usual puritanism - and in ways that were more often than not funny, thoughtful and, yes, sometimes even sexy. The Blockers girls' predicament is both complicated and opened up by the fact Adlon's Sam is identifiably gay, yet feels pressured by her thirsty pals into pursuing the cock-as-in-cock. (The gay-themed Love, Simon opens in multiplexes next week: for all our fears that the world is becoming more repressive, something looks to have shifted in our movies for the better.)

Cannon's film has its grosser manoeuvres - beer bongs inserted in unusual orifices, a separate incident of projectile vomiting - but it's not trying to put us off so much as win us over. Nothing in the performances matches Game Night's sparkling McAdams-Bateman pairing, but its parallel threesomes do gel to carry the film from A to B: the Kehoes' script is on some fundamental level an ode to that camaraderie and closeness that perhaps only develops when underpants stay on. The juvenile leads are very sweet and credible in their responses, particularly once their ragbag of suitors have them behind closed doors; the grown-ups, meanwhile, busy themselves wringing their hands, and all the laughs they can from this material. Cena has been settling nicely into the role of living, breathing sight gag ever since 2015's Trainwreck, and he has an easy chemistry with Mann's adorable single mother, clinging onto Newton's Julie in the desperate hope her daughter can prevent her from dying alone; halfway through Blockers, you come to the odd realisation that Apatow - Mann's own husband, who directed her in Knocked Up and This is 40 - has never let her be quite this funny. 

The MVP here, however, is Barinholtz, the amiably disgusting Nurse Morgan on TV's The Mindy Project, who's always looked somewhat like Mark Wahlberg if Mark Wahlberg had been raised in a Grundon recycling bin. His Hunter is on some basic level Morgan in a suit, but the movies have had many worse ideas than that of late: Barinholtz makes something very funny out of the disproportionate antagonism the character stirs in one nerd he keeps running into, and a casual example out of the scene in which Sam comes out to her dad. That scene is typical of Blockers' tendency to swerve the crude or crass in order to locate the sweet spot in any given set-up: as in most recent American comedies, there's not much in the way of visual elegance, but even the potentially farcical/nightmarish scenario of parent-trapped-in-hotel-room-where-child-plans-to-do-the-deed is elevated by one close-up of Mann that reveals the love in a mother's eyes, her hopes that her daughter's lovelife (and sexlife) will run smoother than her own. The remainder is hardly so profound, being no more or less than a fun night out, but it's not the first or last time Blockers demonstrates the benefits of running a female gaze over this coarse-grained variety of material.

Blockers is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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