Sex-Positive Comedy Escapes Teen Bigotry, Can’t Escape Trope Banality
Here’s a question for Brian and Jim Kehoe, the writers of Blockers, the latest comedy from Pitch Perfect auteur Kay Cannon: If a high school comedy about girls exploits male genitalia in the same way high school comedies about boys used to exploit female genetalia, does that make it any funnier?
So here we go with Blockers, or Cock Blockers, if you’re so inclined – the poster makes the not-so-subtle reference to the film’s real title with a cartoon rooster – and the picture follows suit, inundating us with well-trodden humor about coming-of-age teenagers in the era of sexting, Instagram and Pornhub.
The difference being that this time around the message is decidedly sex-positive, a theme that is pounded home with the subtlety of a brick to the face for the final 30 of the film’s bloated 102 minutes. Unfortunately, the sex-positive message we are supposed to take home with us is usurped by the usual sexual exploitation once the exclusive milieu of Kevin Smith, now borrowed by Cannon in the form of flaccid body-double dicks and John Cena’s naked ass.
Oh, the hilarity.
As a former teenager who lost his virginity on the night of junior prom, I found the stakes of this film ridiculously low. Yes, losing one’s virginity is a big deal in the mind of a teenager who has yet to lose it, but once the threshold is crossed, the moment loses its ethereal glimmer. To think that in 2018, parents struggling to survive wage inequality, the fear of school shootings and a cartoon presidency, are losing sleep over potentially broken hymens is laughable, far more so, unfortunately, than the sight John Cena’s naked ass.
That’s what makes Blockers seem 10 years or so behind the times, regardless of its sex-positive messaging. Don’t get me wrong, it was quite refreshing to see a film in which a parent was supportive and in-tune with his daughter’s sexuality – the Ike Barinholtz character, Hunter, is the film’s brightest and most realistic by far. But one woke parent – who, by the way, goes along anyway with his insane counterparts’ idea to destroy their kids’ prom night – is not nearly enough to redeem a narrative built upon a sex-negative premise.
Who are we supposed to be rooting for exactly? As Barinholtz points out before inexplicably giving in, even if the three parents, including Cena (Mitchell) and Leslie Mann (Lisa) end up succeeding in their mission, they will be seen forever as ridiculously stupid, overbearing, and borderline evil for ruining a once-in-a-lifetime moment for their kids. The stakes of the film simply don’t matter because we want the three protagonists to fail, and in the end, when they learn their lesson, it doesn’t resonate, because they are set up as parents who should have learned, and in some cases did learn, these lessons long ago. How exactly do they change? They go from woke, to unwoke for 24 hours, back to woke-for-life? Blockers is a character-development catastrophe.
Cena, playing a meathead who married way over his head, is the lone parent in the cabal who acts to his decidedly unwoke character-type. He is the overbearing father who thinks that shielding his daughter is his “job,” and will stop at nothing – even physically assaulting her date – to make sure no penis dare enter the premises. I’m not a parent, don’t ever plan to be, but I can’t see how acting like a criminal is justified because, “It’s my job.” OK, Mitchell, protecting your daughter is your job, so why not do it well?
Which leads us to Leslie Mann’s character, a supposedly woke single mother, who takes her daughter to all the marches, “Even the Tax Day march, and nobody shows up for that shit.” But Lisa is perhaps the most overbearing of the three parents, as she spies on her daughter relentlessly, constantly harassing her over UCLA admissions and whether she truly loves her boyfriend. Lisa spends the entire film projecting her own painful past onto her daughter’s present and future, even though Julie (Kathryn Newton) is clearly able to make strong life decisions on her own. The movie tries to have it both ways – Mann is both a great parent, strong and independent, who has produced a wonderful young woman for a daughter, but at the same time she is a helicopter mom, obsessed with her daughter’s every move and incapable of living alone once her daughter empties the nest. Pick a lane for your character, and it will be much easier to follow her.
Barinholtz’ character, Hunter, and his relationship with his daughter, Sam (Gideon Adlon), is the film’s saving grace. Hunter explains early on that he knows Sam is a lesbian, and we follow her on her journey of self-discovery throughout, leading to a touching moment near the end when Adlon comes out to Barinholtz. Hunter, who is an estranged father after a messy divorce, breaks into tears and the moment is quite affecting. It was a breath of fresh air to see an adolescent comedy have such a real, transcendent moment, one in which a parent is instantly supportive of his daughter’s sexuality as he would be with any other positive life decision. It wasn’t a big deal, and that’s what makes it a big deal – Hunter was waiting for the moment and hoping it would come before Sam had sex with her closeted male prom date. When the moment does come, it is a relief to Hunter – his daughter didn’t have to make a mistake to learn her truth. After decades of movie parents who find a gay son or daughter repellent and horrifying, it felt like a weight lifted to watch an unselfish parent react to the news exactly as he should, with unconditional love and a celebratory tone. Few things in this world are more self-destructive than living a lie, so when a child emerges from the closet, it is a beautiful, revelatory, cathartic event worthy of a massive party. Blockers absolutely nails this moment, and this storyline, single-handedly making the picture worth the price of admission.
In the end, we are left asking the question posed to every comedy that comes along in this post-comedy world we live in – is it funny? To that I answer, “Sure. OK.”
Yes, I laughed at several moments in the film, mostly in the first 20 minutes and later when Mann gets electrocuted while spying on her daughter, but Act 2 is a bit of chuckle-free slog. Once you realize the protagonists are anti-heroes and that you don’t support their mission in the film, things become decidedly dull. Perhaps it’s because the jokes don’t land, or maybe it’s because the high-school-prom-night, losing-their-virginity, coming-of-age movie has been made so many times that any potentially funny moments to be mined from the premise have long ago lost their comedic edge. Hollywood screenwriters would be well-served to throw away any pages they script from here on out that rely on party scenes, drug-ingestion, or John Cena’s naked ass. It’s a nice ass, don’t get me wrong, it’s just so muscular that the mere display of it could be considered body shaming toward the rest of us.
Speaking of Cena, he steals the show early on – most of the cavalcade of first-act laughs come thanks to the musclebound blonde. Cena has been slowly building his acting resume ever since appearing alongside and on top of Amy Schumer in Trainwreck, but I’m not ready to make lazy comparisons to Dwayne Johnson just yet. Cena has a long way to go to become the highest paid actor in Hollywood, as Johnson currently is, but I do find him interesting to watch and potentially captivating if given the right script. Blockers was not that script, unfortunately, but it did offer a taste of Cena’s potential.