It’s fair to say that anyone who goes to see “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” will expect a certain amount of bang (pun intended) for their buck. The movie, after all, has “wedding” in the title (which, of course, is designed to get you to think of “Wedding Crashers”), and it’s got a poster that makes it look like its four lead characters are just waking up after a fraternity-bash bender from hell. The audience is sure to demand its quota of gross-out gags, gratuitous nudity, discombobulated druggie slapstick, dialogue sprinkled with over-the-top raunch, and at least one sequence in which a character we like gets seriously physically damaged. “Mike and Dave” offers all of that, so no one should walk away too disappointed, but the good news is that the movie, while it rambles on a bit, also has a gently nutty spirit that is often quite winning.
Yes, it’s a piece of product shaped by four decades’ worth of arrested-adolescent farce (going back to the granddaddy of bad-behavior comedy, “National Lampoon’s Animal House”). But when these kinds of movies work at all, it’s not just because they offer cheerfully delinquent man-boys acting out new and improved ways to offend. It’s because they’re comedies of behavior that capture a certain personality flavor of the moment. “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” does that nicely, and one of the main reasons is that the men onscreen are no longer the only ones behaving badly. The women, who used to be victims of this stuff or on the sidelines, are now at the rowdy, disheveled, foul-mouthed center of it all, and that just multiplies the highly agreeable possibilities for naughty nasty lunacy. And, of course, the movie is a love story! Box office prospects look solid or better.
Zac Efron, likably blitzed but basically the straight man, and Adam Devine (from the “Pitch Perfect” comedies), as a rubber-faced geek with a tenuous hold on reality, are Dave and Mike Stangle, brothers who run a business selling liquor wholesale. They’re the lifelong screw-ups of their family, so when the time comes to plan their sister’s destination wedding at a resort in Hawaii, they’re ordered to find respectable dates to bring along, so that they don’t ruin the event by hitting on every woman there. Their search for companions, a nationwide “contest” that begins on YouTube and culminates in their appearance on “The Wendy Williams Show,” is based on the true-life antics of the Stangle brothers, who found 15 minutes of sleaze-fame by trolling for dates on Craigslist. But really, that’s all just designed to give the film a trivial up-to-the-minute hook. (If this were 1995 and Mike and Dave had found their dates via personal ads, it would have been the same movie.)
The joke is that the dates find them, and that they’re even more disreputable than our wastrel-loser heroes. When we meet Alice (Anna Kendrick) and Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza), they’re the world’s most inept waitresses, bumbling around a restaurant in far-too-skimpy outfits. They’re drunk, but they’re not dumb. After seeing Mike and Dave on TV, they decide they could use a free vacation, and they figure out that the two guys are going to be deluged with unappealing opportunists. So they devise a way to win them over: by arranging to meet them by “accident,” and by coming on as “nice girls.”
It’s here where the comedy really takes off. Aubrey Plaza, who was so sharp playing a good girl pretending to be bad in “The To Do List,” is even sharper playing a bad girl pretending to be good. She’s got a face made for deception — she’s like a devil doll, eyebrows lowering with cunning — and her line readings are killer. When she spits out a line like “We’re gonna flip the script and Bachelorette that s—!” she’s like a hip-hop princess, and when she says of Mike, “He looks like a funhouse mirror version of a better-looking dude, but he is…just that dude,” the line works because you feel her joy in delivering it. She puts on big serious glasses to be Mike’s date for the wedding, pretending to be a school teacher, and Plaza’s impersonation of a sweet, kind soul is so acidly perfect that it brings to mind Gillian Flynn’s description in “Gone Girl” of all the fakery that goes into acting like the Cool Girl. Plaza delivers a satire of niceness, and Kendrick, who truly is playing a nice girl (just a dazed and confused one), provides a daffy stoned counterpoint to Plaza’s gloriously rude misanthropy.
Next to these two, Mike and Dave seem ordinary enough, but beneath their presentable — in Dave’s case, model-hunky — looks, they’re the latest in a long line of characters, stretching from Wayne and Garth to the heroes of “Superbad” and beyond, who view all of reality through a warped media lens. It’s as if everything that happened to them was something they were watching on television. There’s a very funny sequence in which the four characters go riding on dune bikes over the spectacular rolling green stretch of Hawaii where “Jurassic Park” was filmed, and the issue of who’s going to take a daring jump off a small cliff becomes a four-way contest of male-versus-female moxie. Mike starts out as the cowardly wimp — until he decides to go for it, which has unfortunate consequences for his sister, Jeanie (Sugar Lyn Beard), who winds up with a seriously bruised face right before the wedding. “You look like burn-victim Barbie!” says Mike, only ratcheting up the insensitivity by saying to Jeanie’s fiancée, Eric (Sam Richardson), “And you’re black Ken!” That’s the film’s one and only reference to the fact that Eric is African-American, and it’s perfectly placed, because it becomes a joke on what’s going on deep inside the head of an idiot like Mike (and all the other idiots like him).
“Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” doesn’t have a plot so much as it has a messy, ambling sprawl. That’s part of what’s agreeable about it (we’re spared the clank of sitcom setups), but also what’s a little too-much-of-an-okay-thing about it. The film could have used more of the classic screwball structure that gave “Wedding Crashers” its comic punch. Yet it has characters and setups that keep on giving — like the wonderfully quick-on the-draw Alice Wetterlund as Cousin Terry, who’s got designs on Tatiana, as well as a first-rate tripping-on-Ecstasy interlude, and a wildly hilarious sequence in which Jeanie enjoys what might be described as a very nude massage, and the whole issue of whether or not the massage “went too far” becomes a witty turning of the tables on pre-wedding rituals of male hedonism. What’s funny and winning about “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” is that it’s a comedy of equal-opportunity raunch, where everyone in sight is right at home inside the animal house.