Movies

Like ‘American Pie’ Before It, The Absurd And Funny ‘Blockers’ Tries To Do Right By The Sexual Politics Of Its Time

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In Kay Cannon’s Blockers — the title’s silent prefix works with both “Cock” and “Ball”— jock dad Mitchell (John Cena) fancies himself as a LeBron James-esque enforcer intent on stopping man-bun-wearing chemistry geek Connor (Miles Robbins) from scoring in his daughter Kayla’s sacred basketball hoop on prom night. Kayla (a charismatic, crooked grinning Geraldine Viswanathan) is the light of Mitchell’s life, and yet he’s so blinded by the smart, funny, sex-positive woman she’s becoming, he’s practically staring at the sun. In her bedroom, Mitchell casually, and obliviously, massages himself with her vibrator, and she just as casually plucks it from his beefy hands and turns it off. Later, spying on a string of naughty emojis symbolizing a sex pact between Kayla and BFFs Julie (Kathryn Newton) and Sam (Gideon Adlon), he bleats, “They’ve got an agreement to make eggplant parmesan!”

Nope. Kayla, Julie, and Sam have a deal to lose their virginities on the same night. Julie, the romantic with Love Actually and 16 Candles posters on her walls, wants to seal the deal with Austin (Graham Phillips), her very serious boyfriend of six months, which has her clingy mother Lisa (Leslie Mann) terrified her daughter will destroy her life over a crush. (As she quit college for Julie’s father, she over-identifies.) Kayla and Sam just want to inaugurate a friendaversary—an excuse to go to the Olive Garden every year for, hey, eggplant parmesan!—which as reasons go, is pretty weak. Still, it’s their reason, pledged in devotion to each other, not any guy, and they’ve made it soberly in the cafeteria long before the night explodes into drunken projectile-vomiting. More-so, it’s their reason, full stop, and Mitchell and Lisa, the ying-yang twins of macho fatherhood and fluttery motherdom, don’t get to run defense. The third parent, Ike Barinholtz’s barfly Hunter, joins up a saboteur—how dare this prudish posse attempt to prevent his Sam from having the best night of her life, just as prom was for him before his life rolled toward the gutter. Bleats Hunter, “We have to empower these young women! It’s 2018!”

That it is. Back when the adults would have graduated high school, the hit teen sex comedy was American Pie. (Though it’s impossible to imagine a smaller model of John Cena existing, let alone buying a ticket — and thank heaven as his bulging forehead veins couldn’t withstand imagining Connor posterizing his daughter, aka immortalized on social media like Jason Biggs’ overexcited dalliance with foreign exchange student Nadia.) Just like American Pie filmmakers Chris and Paul Weitz, Blockers screenwriters Brian and Jim Kehoe are brothers trying to do right by the sexual politics of the time. For the Weitz’s that meant letting the boys flail around wheedling to get laid while steadily acknowledging that the girls call the shots. Granted, that meant Nadia, Stifler’s mother, and band camp seductress Michelle were aggressive Penthouse fantasies, but at least the late ’90s did better by women than the ’80s babes lured into moon bounces with lies and booze, and rewarded with their disembodied legs standing spread on a VHS cover.

There are no insatiable flautists here, and when Julie brags she wants her first time to be like another two-decade-old flick, American Beauty, Kayla groans, “Have you even seen it?” All hail Viswanathan, who swaggers into the frame with the confidence of a star. While her no-nonsense Kayla, withdrawn nerd Sam, and girly-girl Julie aren’t believable as girls who’d stay friends after second grade, it’s worth playing along just to admire their united determination to do exactly what they want. Although, for tonight Sam is unsure whether that means making out with her official escort Chad (Jimmy Bellinger), a red-haired elf to whom the script struggles mightily to be kind, or Angelica (Ramona Young), a glitter-painted free spirit who sashays onto the dance floor in her handmade Galadriel cosplay cape. As for swoony couple Julie and Austin, who’d have been the centerpiece in 1998, they’re the least interesting part of the script. Still, Cannon is dialed into how a teen girl prepping for what’s, till then, the most memorable night of her life is no passive victim — she’s a peak control freak — and Newton makes Julie a magical combination of dreamy, bossy, innocent, honest, and obnoxious.

Otherwise, there’s not too much to say about the girls because the story’s still not really about them. Instead, Mann hurtles herself into a part that’s perfect for her demented doll brand of comedy, a Barbie so out of touch with reality she sobs when she’s smiling. Here, she attempts to summon Julie with a maternal birdcall, flapping her arms and cooing, “Julie! Julie!” The gag is fast and absurd, and Mann just keeps moving at hummingbird speed, dive-bombing scenes with small, sharp moments that wound up being my favorite bits in the film. Barin’s Hunter is a king atop Cannon’s inverted pyramid of good parenthood as he’s so walled off from his daughter’s inner life that he doesn’t give a damn who she’s snogging, as long as she’s into it. Near the bottom are helicopter hoverers Michael and Lisa. Lower still, you meet parents Gary Cole and Gina Gershon, who talk openly with their son about everything and are the movie’s true freaks.

Over the gameplay of Blockers, Mitchell and Lisa get upbraided several times for trying to re-weld the chastity belt, even after Lisa yelps, “Can you please stop speaking to me like someone that bombs abortion clinics?” There’s a confusing undercurrent where Lisa avoids bonding with the married Mitchell for reasons the script never explains. Are they fleeing their own terrifying sexual draw? Maybe so, but I’m glad his wife Marcie (Sarayu Blue) is around to watch Mitchell chew on what he thinks are her clean panties, only to gag when she reveals that saliva-soaked thong is Kayla’s. What was erotic when Marcie’s is cheap for his little angel — in his sputtering panic, we can make out the words “disgusting” and “stripper,” which makes him a hypocrite who’s acting hyper-crazy.

But the film adores Cena’s sentimental brute who has hams for calves and kitten GIFs for brains. Mitchell’s so square he’s cubic, a blockhead forever two beats behind the girls. When he tries to think, he jabs his fingers at his temples as though trying to jolt a thought into existence, and when overwhelmed, his only advice is, “Play sports!” Elbowing into after-prom parties with his crewcut and cellphone belt holster, Mitchell looks like a mockery of a 1950s dad, the kind of thick-neck satire captured best by cartoons. Peeling off his khaki shorts for a gag about his tightly-clenched ass, this over-protective dad is a caricature of the patriarchy. To Blockers, he’s the literal butt of the joke.

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