As the great late-20th-century philosophers Calvin and Hobbes once observed, a good compromise leaves everyone unsatisfied. Convincing proof of that axiom can be found in the Halloween-set teen comedy “Fun Size,” a hydra-headed attempt to dirty up the Nickelodeon brand while simultaneously scrubbing raunchy high-school hookup tropes into family-friendly shape; the ungainly end result makes about as much sense as Kidz Bop rerecording Odd Future. B.O. returns ought to be rather fun-sized, which, as any trick-or-treater can tell you, isn’t nearly as good as it sounds.
The first PG-13 U.S. effort from Nickelodeon Movies, as well as the feature directing debut of “The OC” and “Gossip Girl” mastermind Josh Schwartz, “Fun Size” leans much more toward the former’s slap-happy hyperreality than the latter’s literate soap sensibilities. Starring Nick net vet Victoria Justice as NYU-bound high schooler Wren, it unfolds on a single, eventful Halloween night.
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Wren, as she tells us in brisk v.o., recently lost her father, which has left the entire family askew. Her mom (Chelsea Handler) has taken up with a twentysomething boyfriend and dresses as “… Baby One More Time”-era Britney Spears for the holiday. Her 7-year-old brother, Albert (Jackson Nicoll), has ceased speaking entirely and launched a campaign of elaborate pranks.
At the urging of her delightfully bitchy best friend (Jane Levy), Wren plans to attend a Halloween party thrown by her school’s resident “god, stud (and) legend,” Aaron Riley (Thomas McDonnell), but is roped into babysitting her brother at the last minute. While they’re out trick-or-treating, Albert disappears, forcing the two girls to hook up with Wren’s wallflower secret admirer, Roosevelt (Thomas Mann), and his nerdy horndog friend (Osric Chau) to find the kid. Increasingly tiresome misadventures ensue.
Meanwhile, the mute Albert teams up with a weirdo convenience-store clerk (Thomas Middleditch) to wreak vengeance on his ex, goes dancing with a flock of anime-attired club girls, and eventually runs afoul of a drunk-driving, mulleted MMA fighter (Johnny Knoxville). The oddness of springing laughs by having a prepubescent boy climb into cars and hit up bars is undeniable, and it actually seems worse when the script acknowledges it with some recurring stranger-danger jokes.
And therein lies “Fun Size’s” central, fatal paradox: While its nods toward partying, sexuality and pedophilia may be tame by R-rated standards, they feel disproportionately uncomfortable in context. Since the pic imports the goofy, giddy Saturday-cartoon-like vibe of an average Nick sitcom, observing these characters curse and feel each other up is a bit like watching Carly and Sam suddenly try to score some ecstasy in the Groovy Smoothie parking lot.
Of course, questionable propriety would be a moot point if the film were consistently funny, but its hit-to-miss ratio is dire. Working from a Black List script by Max Werner, Schwartz displays strangely few of the winning idiosyncrasies that characterized his TV work. Gags that might have worked with even a cursory bit of setup are given none, abrupt tonal shifts knock the film off its axis, and a late stab at an “OC”-style dramatic montage set to swooning indie rock feels almost like a Schwartz parody.
Justice is an appealing and competent onscreen presence, though she does still slip into that that distinctive, overly expressive enunciation typical of recovering child stars. Mann makes for a slightly more masculine, yet simultaneously nerdier, version of Michael Cera, while Levy steals the show as Wren’s just-this-side-of-villainous best frenemy. Adult performers Handler and Knoxville seem unsure that there’s anything much do with their roles, and hesitant to even really try.
Tech credits are functional and unobjectionable, though “Fun Size” is quite visually flat for a bigscreen film. Music-supervision maven Alexandra Patsavas provides a nicely kinetic modern soundtrack.