Those wondering how the newly reshuffled Focus Features will differentiate itself from its arty, Oscar-garlanded predecessor need look no further than “That Awkward Moment,” in which a couple of twentysomething dudes jacked up on Viagra school each other in the acrobatic art of urinating “horizontally.” “Brokeback Mountain” it’s not, though that is one of the better gags in tyro scribe-helmer Tom Gormican’s familiar tale of three commitment-phobic New Yorkers forced to re-examine their philosophy of “bros before hos” when Ms. Right walks into each of their lives. The pic falls well short of its efforts to combine the raucous vulgarity of the “Hangover” movies with Cameron Crowe-ish depth of feeling, but Gormican had the good fortune to cast one of the most interesting young actors in movies today, Miles Teller, and to surround him with an able-bodied cast that deserves better than most of what they’ve been given. That plus the heavily advertised promise of Zac Efron in various states of undress and coitus should give “Awkward” a sizable moment at the February box office.
Gormican begins and ends “That Awkward Moment” with Efron’s Jason sitting alone and forlorn on a bench in Gramercy Park on a chilly winter’s night, and in between flashes back to show us how he got there. It’s a story that involves so many staggeringly selfish and stupid decisions (even by romantic-comedy standards) that, at a certain point, it becomes impossible to muster the slightest concern for the character and whether he’ll ever find true love or simply keep chasing tail all the way into the nursing home. (The “moment” of the title is said to be the one where a relationship either falls apart or advances to the next, more serious level — which is precisely when Jason tends to call it quits.)
In one of those fantasy movie jobs that seems to provide for unusually spacious Manhattan apartments and reams of J. Crew couture, Jason works together with best bud Daniel (Teller) as in-demand book-jacket designers, while third musketeer Mikey (Michael B. Jordan) inhabits a slightly realer world as a doctor who, as the movie opens, has just been dumped by his wife (Jessica Lucas) for another man. Taking a page from those bromantic horndogs of Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” the three friends swear off any serious entanglements with the fairer sex for the foreseeable future, heeding Jason’s advice of keeping a “roster” of friends with benefits to be called upon for guilt-free hookups.
All of which is well and good until Jason meets his Princess of Aquitaine in the form of Ellie (Imogen Poots), a lit-world fellow traveler whom he initially mistakes for a high-class hooker. (No satire on the cutthroat machinations of the publishing industry seems intended.) Around the same time, Daniel starts to feel something like love for his longtime platonic gal-pal Chelsea (Mackenzie Davis), while Mikey tries to patch things up with his ex — all in secret, of course, lest “the guys” find out about it.
The three leads have an affable, easygoing chemistry. Efron isn’t asked to do much more here than prance around in his skivvies and, when his insensitive-jerk behavior catches up to him, look like a doleful puppy dog who’s been left out in the rain; but as skivvy-prancing, rain-soaked puppy dogs go, one could certainly do worse. Jordan, who made such a forceful impression in “Chronicle” and last year’s “Fruitvale Station,” has the least developed role, complete with an unfunny running gag about his discolored penis.
But it’s Teller who really kicks things up a notch whenever he’s onscreen, especially in his scenes together with newcomer Davis, who’s very good at playing the kind of self-deprecating girl-next-door who’s always been better at hanging out with guys than cozying up to them. Teller (“Project X,” “The Spectacular Now”) may be the least ironic or postmodern actor under 30 in movies today, and even though he’s cultivated a persona of the fast-talking, joke-telling wiseass who never takes things seriously, there’s an underlying sweetness and sincerity to his work that shows us how all that bluster is just his character’s defense against a profound fear of getting too close.
As director, Gormican has a decent sense of visual storytelling and a good feel for New York locations, but he doesn’t really know how to build a scene rhythmically, and the movie’s third-act attempt at a big, farcical Thanksgiving Day setpiece falls desperately flat. As a writer, he’s loaded up his debut script with dated pop-culture references (Bridget Jones, really?) and strains repeatedly for those Crowe/James L. Brooks moments in which a character seemingly ad-libs some poetic monologue rife with insights about life and love. Only, when Gormican’s characters do this, what they have to say wouldn’t make the cut at American Greetings. Teens and twentysomethings who possess even less life experience and emotional maturity than these characters may find profundity in some of this. All others need not apply.