In one of the more amusing scenes in “Blockers,” a strained raunch fest about a long, dark prom night of the soul, three middle-age adults get a crash course in advanced text-message symbology. They have intercepted a private exchange among their three teenage daughters, who, like most kids of their generation, speak the language of emoji with a fluency that can be hard for their parents to decipher. But in the end, all those engorged eggplants and suggestively positioned fingers can mean only one thing: Their daughters, who have been best friends for years, have formed a pact to lose their virginity on prom night.
Predictably enough, this development triggers a long, regressive and fitfully funny spectacle of parental outrage, as Lisa (Leslie Mann), Mitchell (John Cena) and Hunter (Ike Barinholtz) set out to derail their daughters’ plans by any means necessary. But it also subverts a well-worn paradigm of the teen sex comedy, which for decades has lavished (too) much attention on the horn-dog exploits of boys in movies like “American Pie” and “Superbad,” while rarely granting girls the same initiative.
“Blockers,” directed by Kay Cannon (writer of the “Pitch Perfect” movies) from a script by brothers Brian and Jim Kehoe, is both eager to point out this double standard and to offer itself up as a refreshing corrective. It nails the hypocrisy of a culture that both sexualizes and infantilizes young women, and it could hardly be better timed for a moment when a national conversation on sexual harassment has brought with it a vital corollary of female empowerment.
The task of articulating that corollary falls to Mitchell’s more open-minded wife, Marcie (Sarayu Blue), a side character who embodies the movie’s diversity of spirit in more ways than one. (Her marriage is one of two interracial relationships in the story, a fact that “Blockers,” to its credit, makes far less fuss about than this sentence.) In one boldly didactic scene, Marcie rejects the punitive hysteria of her husband and his friends, claiming that they are treating their daughters as “damsels in distress.”
Admittedly, that accusation isn’t entirely fair. Hunter, never the most attentive of fathers, is sharp enough to have guessed, correctly, that his daughter, Sam (Gideon Adlon), is a closeted lesbian. In trying to keep her from going all the way with her prom date, Chad (Jimmy Bellinger), he is less interested in safeguarding her chastity than her honesty.
As for the intensely overprotective Lisa and Mitchell, what really scares them most is that their daughters — Julie (Kathryn Newton) and Kayla (Australian actress Geraldine Viswanathan), respectively — might not be damsels in distress so much as vixens in heat. It’s the prospect of these girls’ sexual independence and assertiveness that scares them, not their naivete.
That assertiveness is the best thing about “Blockers,” which presents its three teenage protagonists as smart, free-thinking individuals who approach their first sexual experiences with wildly different expectations. While Julie feels ready to take her relationship with her boyfriend, Austin (Graham Phillips), to the next level, Kayla views the act in more detached, functional terms, figuring that her science-lab partner, Connor (Miles Robbins), will be as good a cherry-popper as any. Sam, not yet ready to acknowledge her orientation or her crush on another student, Angelica (Ramona Young), decides to join the pact mainly to cement her bond with her two besties, whom she fears she might lose someday.
The mere existence of these distinctions, and the girls’ ability to parse them with equal parts foul-mouthed bravado and analytical clarity, feels like a welcome rebuke to a testosterone-fueled romp like “Porky’s.” (Another rebuke: Their male prom dates turn out to be patient, consent-aware partners.) Amid the usual prom-night shenanigans involving dancing, drinking and projectile vomiting, Adlon, Newton and especially Viswanathan make wittily enjoyable on-screen company, even if their characters never quite achieve the individual distinctiveness or the fully felt chemistry of the best high-school friendship movies.
So it’s easy enough to admire “Blockers” for its gender parity and for its generational parity as well: It treats its teenagers like the smart young adults they are and mocks its grown-ups for the screamingly insecure kids they often become. But Cannon’s movie would be even easier to applaud — and more important, to enjoy — if its comedy rose to similar heights of inspiration. The attitudes at play here are so refreshing, the actors so appealing and eager to please, you may find yourself wondering why nearly every joke feels so uninspired by comparison.
Some of this is due to a perpetually lazy strain in American screen comedy, which mistakenly believes the mere repetition of words like “penis” and “vagina” will, in the year 2018, be enough to shock us into laughter. (Or, barring that, a sudden scrotal close-up, as part of the now de facto reliance on male nudity as a comic device.) Some of it is due to basic visual sloppiness, evident in a few scenes notable for their poor (ahem) blocking and badly mismatched edits.
But where the movie suffers most is in its misplaced emphasis on its three grown-up leads, who spend too much time shouting, bickering and flailing their way from one underwhelming set-piece to the next. That’s not a knock on the actors, all talented veterans of the extended Universal comedy dynasty founded years ago by Judd Apatow and more recently upheld by the likes of Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen (both credited as producers here).
Barinholtz, who appeared in the “Neighbors” movies, gets the busiest arc as a neglectful dad trying to make things right with his daughter; his live-wire antics are fun if a little exhausting. Mann wrings a minor variation on the malcontent moms she played in “This Is 40” and “Funny People,” this time with an extra edge of tension stemming from Lisa’s fear that her only child is slipping away for good.
As for Cena, a mammoth slab of WWE muscle who showed a winningly sensitive streak in the Amy Schumer comedy “Trainwreck,” he should have been this movie’s prime comic asset and winds up feeling oddly underused. It takes next to nothing for Cena to be funny; the mere sight of him running around in his plaid shirt and dad shorts, as if the whole movie were taking place on Casual Lumberjack Friday, is an ever-endearing source of giggles. Treating him as the literal butt of a gross-out beer-chugging gag just feels unimaginative.
And what derails “Blockers” in the end is a curious lack of imagination, an inability to think beyond the raunch-com genre’s most sentimental clichés. The awkwardness with which parents and teens negotiate the difficult topic of sex could be the stuff of a genuinely first-rate farce, but you wouldn’t know it from this movie’s closing scenes of teary-eyed reconciliation, most of which ring embarrassingly hollow and false. Can a movie be authentically about teenage empowerment and still insist on treating the viewer like a child?
Rating: R, for crude and sexual content, and language throughout, drug content, teen partying and some graphic nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Playing: In general release