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Review:  ‘Slow Learners’ doesn’t make it to the top of the comedy class

Review: ‘Slow Learners’ doesn’t make it to the top of the comedy class
Adam Pally and Sarah Burns aim to make some changes in “Slow Learners.”
(Chase Bowman / IFC Films)

Call it “Geeks Gone Wild.”

A pair of high school employees desperate to shed their dorky image pledge to let loose during summer vacation in “Slow Learners,” a satirical romantic comedy that gets mixed grades in the laughter department.

At first glance, you’d know Jeffrey (Adam Pally) and Anne (Sarah Burns) have never been mistaken for the cool kids. He’s a doughy-faced, khakis-wearing school guidance counselor and president of an all-male book club, while Anne, his work colleague and best friend, has an affection for cat sweaters and has been diagnosed as “clinically abstinent” by her doctor.

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With school break just around the corner, the platonic friends pledge to undergo the sort of extreme makeover that would turn them into “sex-in-the-bathroom people.”

Needless to say, the transition doesn’t go quite as planned, but the process yields some amusing, if occasionally forced, results.

Making their feature narrative debut after establishing a reputation as documentary filmmakers, co-directors Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce take full advantage of a cast with an extensive background in sketch comedy. Many of the players cut their teeth with the Upright Citizens Brigade and the Groundlings, while others, including Bobby Moynihan and Cecily Strong, are known for their appearances on “Saturday Night Live.”

But being big on improvisation doesn’t necessarily mine nuggets of comic brilliance, and there are times you wish Argott and Joyce would have adhered more closely to the Matt Serword-penned script. For every tart “Did you get a makeover at the meth mall?” there’s a clearly riffed bit that would have been more at home in the film’s obligatory but superfluous end-credits outtakes. Neither does the loosey-goosey, keep-the-camera-rolling-and-see-what-sticks approach always serve its leads effectively.

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Although Pally, who was a regular on “The Mindy Project” and “Happy Endings,” fares better, rooting the career nerd Jeffrey in a sweet goofiness, Burns (“Enlightened”) apparently has been encouraged to mug the far flightier Anne into submission. The result is a sketch-bound character who tries too hard by half.

Establishing that ideal tone is a tricky thing to pull off. Nail the perfect balance of outrageousness and empathy, and you’ve got the makings of a similarly themed Judd Apatow-Amy Schumer hit collaboration.

This particular “Trainwreck,” on the other hand, becomes too easily derailed.

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‘Slow Learners’

Playing: Laemmle’s NoHo 7, North Hollywood. Also on VOD.

MPAA rating: None

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Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes


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