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.