There’s a long-standing Hollywood tradition of comic characters (the vast majority, but not all, played by stars of “Saturday Night Live”) who are patently disreputable anti-social f—ups. It’s the comedy as rock ‘n’ roll school of bad behavior, and its exemplars are legend: John Belushi turning wreckage into blissed-out anarchy in “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” Bill Murray and his jabbering slob irony in everything from “Meatballs” to “St. Vincent,” Will Ferrell’s destructive moronic narcissists, Jim Carrey’s media-wired lunatics, the revenge-of-the nerd horndog teen partiers of “Superbad.”
So when you first see Pete Davidson in “Big Time Adolescence,” where he plays a druggie wastrel loser who, from his look to his attitude, is very Pete Davidson (the forest of tattoos, the platinum hair, the dark-circled popping eyes and teeth-baring sexy chimpanzee smile, the stoned spin he puts on words like dude and sick and word), you naturally assume that he’s one of those characters: an outrageous homeboy douche we’re going to be laughing with, rather than at.
He is, maybe slightly. Yet the movie isn’t actually that kind of comedy. Davidson plays Zeke, who is 23 years old but still living like the total rudderless dropout he is. He works (barely) at a discount appliance store, sleeps with his ex-girlfriends, and sells drugs to high-school kids on the side; his idea of ambition is to quit his day job and sell more drugs, so that he won’t have to work at all. He’s like a blank-generation version of Matthew McConaughey’s Wooderson in “Dazed and Confused”: a former high-school stud who’s still clinging to the part, even though it’s starting to look shabby on him. Zeke doesn’t have a care in the world, but that’s only because he doesn’t care about anything, least of all himself. He does, however, have a best friend: Mo (Griffin Gluck), the 16-year-old hero of the movie.
Mo is a relatively straight and together kid (with his keen intelligence, sleek good looks, and Howdy Doody haircut, he seems like sophomore class president material), but he becomes Zeke’s protégé in hanging out and chasing kicks. Zeke drives the kid around, giving him weed, booze, and coarse misogynistic advice in how to get laid, then slipping him increasingly large quantities of drugs to sell at parties — and if that sounds like a slightly inappropriate thing for him to do, it is.
Yet to Mo, Zeke is simply the quintessence of cool. (That’s why Mo will do anything he says.) And Zeke likes hanging out with Mo because that’s how he can keep feeling cool. Davidson, as always, gets you chuckling at the blasé bluntness of his punk self-absorption; he gives a blithely honed and stylish youth-sociopath performance. Yet “Big Time Adolescence,” which is less a wild comedy than a relatively straight coming-of-age movie sprinkled with (mild) chuckles, has no illusions about Zeke as a character. He doesn’t represent a force of disreputable vitality. He’s just a f—up.
And frankly, I wish he’d been something more: the kind of character who slays us with his forbidden hilarity — or, barring that, the sort of layered troublemaker who would have taken Davidson at least one level deeper than his comfort zone. But no, he’s just there, with no arc and not all that much surprise. He’s the charming lout next door who Mo idolizes and has to outgrow, but the movie would have been more of an adventure if we didn’t completely see through Zeke from minute one.
I have no idea how autobiographical “Big Time Adolescence” is (or isn’t), but Jason Orley, the first-time filmmaker who wrote and directed it, certainly makes it feel like you’re watching the anecdotal memoir version of a sowing-your-wild-oats teen flick. Mo sneaks out of the house, blows off his well-meaning but ineffectual father (Jon Cryer), and spends as much time as possible hanging out with high-school seniors, because he thinks that’s where the action is. Zeke isn’t his only bad influence; so is Jon (Thomas Barbusca), his squirmy classmate in coiffed hair, who gains entrée to a “pimps and hos” party by promising to bring alcohol. The two of them go, and the party looks every bit as depressing as it sounds. Even the “pimps and hos” concept just turns out to be a thin excuse for another routine basement drink-a-thon.
The atmosphere of slovenly teen hedonism is authentic, and Orley has a filmmaker’s instinct for how to let the rhythms of a scene play out. At the party, Mo meets a girl, played by the vibrant Oona Laurence, who’s as smart (and cute) as he is, and after gliding past a few getting-to-know-you sarcasms, the two begin to mesh. The connection is real, but Zeke has given Mo his secret for how to win a girl, and it turns out to be his boilerplate version of a “neg”: Lavish all this attention on her, he explains, make a point of pampering her with her favorite latte, and then, just as she’s getting hooked…ghost her! She won’t know what hit her, and when you finally return, she’ll be yours.
Pete Davidson delivers this loathsome advice with a conviction that’s rather unnerving, and Mo’s attempt to follow it turns out to be the plot of the movie. Boy meets girl, boy woos girl, boy (following Zeke’s genius counsel!) treats girl like trash, then boy discovers that winning her back isn’t really so easy. Laurence is like the young Ally Sheedy with more moxie, and Gluck, who never seems less than genuine, registers Mo’s deep dismay at seeing how wrong he was. But you wish there was more to the movie than that.
“Big Time Adolescence” isn’t bad, but it’s a trifle. It kept making me think of teen movies with central characters who go rogue in major ways that had more bite and surprise to them, like “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” or “Edge of Seventeen” or “mid90s.” The wild card here is supposed to be Pete Davidson. Yet how wild a card can he be if he never seems like anything but a pest pretending to be a rock star?