Raucously funny and thoughtfully reflective, Blockers is one of the best mainstream sex comedies in years — demystifying teen intercourse, poking holes in gender-based double standards of lost virginity and encouraging kindness and empathy among everyone at the story’s center.
What an outstanding directorial debut for Kay Cannon — making the leap from writing profitable Pitch Perfect installments to shaping dramatic moments as disarming as the laughs are large, and for both veteran actors and impressive new faces. Brian and Jim Kehoe assume screenwriting duties, but there’s an appealing, natural and inclusive infusion of Cannon’s own sensibilities. Collectively, Cannon and the Kehoes create comedy that occasionally lapses into cartoonishness but never cruelty. We relate, perhaps all too well, to its characters’ anxieties and regrets.
Slapping the graphic outline of a rooster before the title means Universal wishes to call it Cock Blockers … even if they can’t really do that; some slang definitions, surprisingly enough, remain too prurient for mass consumption in the world today. Even an edited title improves on the original, though: The Pact sounds like a generic VO-Desperation heave from Steven Seagal.
It also blandly describes the plan of lifelong best friends Julie (Kathryn Newton), Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan) and Sam (Gideon Adlon, daughter of Better Things’ Pamela Adlon) to lose their virginity on prom night. Julie has diagrammed it like a display window at Macy’s, down to a piped-in soundtrack. Kayla is merely curious to just dive in with her science lab partner. Sam has her own reasons for reticence that are revealed in time, but she nevertheless agrees.
Newton, Viswanathan and Adlon form an immediately believable bond as best friends as well as identifiable, individual misfit idiosyncrasies that transcend a screenwriter’s facsimile of teen behavior. Blockers is also unafraid to let them sort through very real neuroses planted in them by parents or peers. Part of the film’s brutal honesty is that even if your parents love you, they don’t always have your best interests in mind. It’s part of nascent adulthood’s minefield, and Blockers wrings as much suspense out of what these young women — and their parents — will choose as any sturdy action film.
When Julie leaves her phone-connected laptop open after taking prom pictures, the notification dings of emoji-coded conversations about #SexPact2018 draws their parents’ attention and ire.
Lisa (Leslie Mann) is Julie’s single mother, uncomfortable with any college choice outside a Chicagoland ZIP code; Mitchell (John Cena) is a sports-minded disciplinarian unable to wrap his head around the independent woman he and his wife have encouraged Kayla to become; and Hunter (Ike Barinholtz) is Sam’s estranged father – also squeezed out of a previously tight friendship with Lisa and Mitchell after an ugly divorce. Although Hunter objects to Sam’s participation in the pact for altogether different reasons, he nevertheless joins Lisa and Mitchell on an all-night quest to foil the fooling around. Their travels involve automotive mishaps, misinterpreted chugging competitions, intrusion upon fellow parents’ own sex lives and — in one of the film’s greatest moments — a direct challenge on Mitchell and Lisa’s puritanically hypocritical bullshit from Mitchell’s own wife (Sarayu Blue, who electrifies this signature moment with incisive insights).
The Kehoes’ script makes it clear that Lisa and Mitchell find it easier to speak in parental lexicons of “gal pal” and “coach” that comforts them, only ratcheting up the tension as these kids find their own language. Hunter, meanwhile, has more or less removed himself from two social pictures with great remorse; he outwardly resents, but inwardly appreciates, the sturdy presence of Sam’s stepdad, Frank (Hannibal Burress), in her life. Even more so than Game Night, Blockers understands the precariousness of adult friendships — and how adults poison the well by telling teens that shedding friends from youth is some natural rite of passage. (Again, bullshit.)
Cannon also lets Cena, Mann and Barinholtz play to strengths you know and subtleties or gusto you don’t. Anyone who saw Barinholtz on The Mindy Project won’t be as surprised at the two mostly dramatic monologues he nails here, but they remain an invigorating complement to the clownish act he’s aced by now. This might be Mann’s finest work yet, from the way she accentuates body language in what she winds up wearing on this wild night out to the finely tuned silence with which she achieves peace with one certain part of Julie’s plans. As for Cena … well, he makes Mitchell a sentient, pulsing vein of paternal concern. It’s all Cena needs to be, but if he can keep this up, he makes his case for a Dwayne Johnson-like ascendancy into the stratosphere. So cheerily does Cena embarrass himself here – while treading water with the more dramatic effects of a concerned dad – that he’s really the film’s driving force of raunch.
Don’t let the unexpectedly strong character work fool you: Blockers still earns its R-rating like an old-pro efficiency expert. A moment when Mitchell locks eyes with another man during an, um, exposed moment is rendered riotous solely by the eye movements of both actors. One particularly squishy insert shot of a scrotum is sure to draw a wince response. And a true bare-it-all scene comes from an actor you wouldn’t expect, alongside a perfect parody of a classic blockbuster. (All three bits involve the same man, whose presence I wouldn’t dare spoil.)
Here’s hoping the lackluster marketing materials and goofily censored title don’t knock Blockers to the side. It would be a shame if people missed out on this tremendously funny and refreshingly sex-, independence- and friendship-positive comedy.