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THAT AWKWARD MOMENT

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You know that a movie is in serious trouble when one of its characters—a guy you’re meant to find charming—is hit by a car, and you’re disappointed to find that he survives. The accident, with its follow-up hospital scene, comes toward the close of “That Awkward Moment,” and it’s merely adds to the long succession of irritants the picture has inflicted on viewers for ninety minutes.

It’s fairly easy to see what first-time writer-director Tom Gormican was aiming for here—a melding of eighties-era relationship dramedies like “St. Elmo’s Fire” or “About Last Night” with the raunch-heavy contemporary sensibility of Judd Apatow and Todd Phillips. But it doesn’t come off at all, because the writing and staging are slipshod and the characters obnoxious. You wince as the game cast strives to make the picture tolerable and fails miserably.

The movie begins with the titular “moment”—when a guy realizes that a girl he’s been dating wants to take their relationship to a new level and breaks things off before they get really serious. The fellow in question is Jason (Zac Efron), a callow, selfish twenty-something given to short-term flings with women he meets during his long nights of bar-hopping. Still, Jason is a paragon of maturity compared to his best buddy Daniel (Miles Teller), with whom he works in tandem as inexplicably successful book cover designers for a dippy fellow named Fred (Josh Pais). Daniel is the motor-mouthed expression of pure id so familiar in these kinds of movies, the abrasive wise-guy jerk you’re supposed to find amusing though you’d flee him in an instant if you met him in real life. Gormican also saddles him with a running potty gag that’s bad enough the first time around, but increasingly repulsive with every reappearance.

These two dunderheads commiserate when Mikey (Michael B. Jordan) the third musketeer (or perhaps better, stooge) shows up. He’s the most responsible of the trio, a doctor with a beautiful wife, Vera (Jessica Lucas). But he’s just found that she’s been having an affair and wants a divorce. So the three dudes take an oath not to get seriously involved with anybody until…well, no deadline date is set.

Of course, each finds himself breaking their vow and keeping the fact from the others. Mikey tries to rebuild his relationship with Vera. Daniel hooks up with Chelsea (Mackenzie Davis), an affable friend who’s long served to help him pick up chicks at their favorite club. And Jason? He links up with Ellie (Imogen Poots), whom—in a particularly unfunny bit—he first mistakes for a prostitute but who he later learns is involved in the publishing trade herself.

The whole “swearing off romance” is a hoary premise to start with, and by now it’s barely sitcom-grade. But it’s made worse by Gormican’s inept handling. He’s especially bad at constructing big set-pieces, the ones that are meant to go off like fireworks and generate explosive laughs. The major examples here—one a party at Ellie’s apartment to which Jason wears an inappropriate costume, and the other a Thanksgiving bash at Chelsea’s parents place—fall completely flat. But the surrounding material isn’t conspicuously better, with scenes regularly coming off as messily staged, without any rhythm or energy, except that provided by Teller’s manic bravado, which quickly grows exhausting rather than amusing, given that his wisecracks turn out to be mostly lame, offensive or both. That suggests that his shtick, which earned Teller considerable notice in “The Spectacular Now,” is already growing thin.

The other guys are no better handled, except that they’re saddled with “serious” stuff as well as unfunny jokes. Efron is required to segue into doe-eyed repentant mode when he lets Ellie down at an important moment in her life (the obligatory obstacle to be surmounted before a happy ending), but mostly he’s required just to play a smug, callous, self-absorbed jerk, which makes the actor, who’s usually ingratiating, unpleasant company indeed. And Jordan, who was such a powerfully authentic presence in “Fruitvale Station,” has to maintain some degree of credibility in the flabbily dramatic scenes with Lucas while simultaneously playing the fool elsewhere, as in a running gag about a part of his anatomy that’s as misguided as Teller’s potty one. The females fare better, largely because they’re not onscreen nearly as much—a real benefit in a picture like this. There are some nice New York exteriors on view here, but cinematographer Brandon Trost generally doesn’t make the best use of them, and the other technical credits are only adequate.

It’s symptomatic of the overall quality—or lack thereof—that characterizes Gormican’s picture that even the bloopers in the final credits crawl are dismal. Ultimately, awful rather than awkward is the operative adjective here.

ANCHORMAN 2: THE LEGEND CONTINES

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Those who have been longing for a sequel to “Anchorman” for nine years will find much the same menu of bizarre non-sequiturs and surrealistic stupidity in “The Legend Continues” as they loved in the original. But for those who found the 2004 picture numbingly awful—and there were quite a few of us—the only solace is that if history is any guide, there won’t be a third installment until 2022.

Will Ferrell returns as Ron Burgundy, the arrogantly imbecilic television news reader from San Diego. His story picks up in 1980, seven years after Burgundy was flummoxed by the addition of female Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) to his all-male team of dumbbells, including sleazy sportscaster Champ Kind (David Koechner), wannabe stud reporter Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd) and goofball weatherman Brick Tamland (Steve Carell). Now Ron and Veronica are married with a seven-year old son named Walter (Judah Nelson), co-anchoring a station’s secondary daily broadcast. When Mack Harken (Harrison Ford, who had a far meatier newsroom role in “Morning Glory”), the long-time anchor of the main newscast, decides to pack it in, he chooses Veronica as his solo successor and cans Burgundy, who winds up as the drunken host of San Diego’s Sea World amusement park. (The sequence there offers one of the script’s few amusing lines, when BP is announced as a sponsor devoted to saving the environment. It was also nice of Ferrell, as a parent, to cast his own kids as members of the audience.)

Burgundy gets canned from that gig too, but after a failed suicide attempt he’s cajoled by producer Freddie Shapp (Dylan Baker, trying to hide behind a beard) to join the news team at a new venture in New York—the first 24-hour cable news station GNN (get it?) funded by Aussie airline mogul Kench Allenby (Josh Lawson). So he rounds up Kind, Fantana and Tamland, despite the fact that Brian is actually supposed to be dead, and the Four Stooges go off to the Big Apple to make history.

There’s the germ of a satirical idea in the script by Ferrell and Adam McKay (who also directed, with a complete absence of style), just as there was in the earlier film. Before it was the introduction of women into the world of TV journalism, and here it’s the dumbing-down of television news in the 24-hour cable format. But as before, there’s no edge in the treatment: apart from some buffoonish digs about broadcasts of car chases, overuse of graphics (actually a much more recent phenomenon), on-site coverage of bad weather and cute, steamy or ultra-patriotic “human interest” fluff, the rich satiric potential goes uninvestigated. Instead the emphasis is on “personal” stuff, life Burgundy’s attempt to reconnect with Veronica (complicated by her new live-in boyfriend, a psychologist played with smarmy slickness by Greg Kinneaer) and Walter, and the inexplicable crush on Ron that his boss Linda (Meagan Good) develops (which leads to an excruciating dinner scene with her family that riffs uncomfortably on racial stereotypes). But certainly the creepiest plot thread along these lines is the romance that develops between Brick and a secretary (Kristen Wiig) who’s as weird as he is.

There also has to be a rival to Burgundy, of course, and this time around it’s golden boy anchor Jack Lime (James Marsden), who initially has the prime-time slot on GNN. Their running feud leads to the big finale—a rumble in what’s meant to be Central Park involving teams not just from the cable station but from all sorts of other broadcast sources—The History Channel, MTV, the BBC, CBN, E!, and so on. This sequence contains so many cameo appearances by Friends of Will that it would add another page to this review to list them all. Suffice it is say that all of the guests seem to be coasting on improvised shtick that makes very little impression, laugh-wise. (Even an appearance by John C. Reilly as the ghost of Stonewall Jackson—a member of the History Channel team—comes across with a dull thud.) But then the stars of the movie are doing likewise.

There will be those who will appreciate “Anchorman 2,” just as many did the original, especially in its ancillary forms. (It wasn’t really a smash in theatres, but has become a VHS/DVD/Blu-ray phenomenon.) They’ll especially appreciate its recycling of bits from the first film, giving them a new spin in the process, and of some from other Ferrell pictures too. But while surrealistic comedy can be bracingly smart, this cartoonish, shambling, disjointed example of it remains as resolutely dumb as its characters. “The Legend Continues” panders to its audience as much as the cable news that it mocks.