A weirdly tame, let’s-all-get-wasted riff on “The Purge” from the team behind such solid youth-focused comedies as “Banana Split” and “Big Time Adolescence,” Hulu original “The Binge” imagines an alternate America where all drugs and alcohol are illegal, except during a 12-hour window each year, at which time anything goes. If the premise sounds more fun than the execution, that’s because “The Binge” doesn’t seem to recognize how or why people indulge in such substances to begin with, treating intoxication as the punchline rather than the setup for what should have been a more subversive satire.
If only the country’s Puritan forefathers, or the teetotalers behind Prohibition, could see where their influence has steered us! Screenwriter Jordan VanDina (who’s also working on the “Animaniacs” reboot) has a few genuinely rowdy ideas up his sleeve — including an epic case of driving under the influence and a shootout involving the world’s smallest crossbow — all of which is heightened by some reasonably inspired improvisation, especially from MVP Vince Vaughn as a wildly inappropriate high school principal. But “The Binge” squanders its sloppy-drunk concept in order to deliver the umpteenth riff on an overplayed buddy-movie formula: the sort where best friends destined to be separated when they head off to college share their most hedonistic bonding experience yet.
Given the superficial resemblance to last year’s far better “Booksmart,” it’s not terribly surprising that two of the leads — likable spaz Skyler Gisondo and long-haired weirdo Eduardo Franco — have been re-cast here in similar roles, in much the same way “Superbad” breakout Christopher Mintz-Plasse milked his McLovin persona for years. “The Binge” is yet another of “Superbad’s” bastard stepchildren: raunchy R-rated comedies spawned by the success of a generational touchstone that came out back when most of the imitators’ target audience was still sucking apple juice from sippy cups. This one aspires to the hedonism of “Project X,” but comes across like an asexual version of such 1980s high school hornball comedies as “Porky’s” and “Zapped!” (The characters talk a lot about their virginity, but don’t do anything about it.)
“The Binge” marks only the second big-screen feature from director Jeremy Garelick (“The Wedding Ringer”), who helped give Vaughn one of his best roles as co-writer of 2006’s “The Break-Up,” and has kept busy since producing above-average teen comedies with his American High partners. The fact that Garelick casts Vaughn as the film’s resident authority figure says a deal about the tone he’s going for — although not nearly as much as the MTV-style opening montage, which serves up a dizzying assortment of drunken home-video fails as supporting evidence for the film’s premise, spelled out by a narrator who sounds an awful lot like Morgan Freeman.
According to the movie’s rules, anyone above the age of 18 can partake in the Binge, although adults — especially Vaughn’s ultra-strict principal Carlsen — go out of their way to warn teens about the perils of drugs and alcohol. As Brown-bound Griffin, Gisondo (“The Amazing Spider-Man”) plays the kind of overachiever inclined to take his elders at their word, planning a quiet afternoon of board games with his folks. But best friend Hags (Dexter Darden of the “Maze Runner” franchise) has other plans: He doesn’t merely want to get plastered; his goal is to become “legendary.” That status is reserved for those reckless enough to compete in a series of potentially deadly drinking games — or in his case, snorting a mountain of cocaine and doing his best Al Pacino imitation.
More than just a sendup of iconic excess, the “Scarface” reference is a reminder that “The Binge” is hardly the first movie to glorify outsize alcohol and drug use. In fact, such behavior is such a mainstay of teen comedies that this one seems practically demure by comparison, with its dorky jokes about Hags’ homemade party bike and how badly Griffin wants to ask Carlsen’s daughter Lena (Grace Van Dien) to the prom. Parents may be relieved that the movie doesn’t outright encourage the behavior its characters so wantonly pursue — this despite a trippy musical number set to an original song called “We’re Gonna Get High,” triggered by a visit to a fast-food Mexican restaurant serving burritos stuffed with magic mushrooms.
Apart from this over-the-top Taco Bell parody — wherein a chain that caters to munchie-seeking stoners instead offers limited-time menu items laced with drugs — “The Binge” doesn’t do nearly enough to develop how this one-day reprieve from forced sobriety might play out. Nor does it acknowledge that outlawing drugs and alcohol does almost nothing to discourage their consumption in America, acting instead to create a kind of underground system of supply and demand. Though the movie is ambiguous about the source of all the contraband, it treats a couple of Latino characters like dealers — namely Griffin and Hags’ oddball classmate Andrew (Franco) and his couldn’t-be-less-identical twin Seb (Esteban Benito), who provide the wristbands for what’s rumored to be the year’s biggest party.
After slipping roofies into their parents’ root beers, Griffin and Hags spend more than half the movie trying to get into the Binge bash, where Griffin can do his best to impress Lena — something he’s not so hot at handling while sober, so probably not the sharpest plan to attempt under the influence of half a dozen substances. Along the way, screenwriter VanDina devises opportunities for the guys to do shots, smoke pot and so on, egged on by an editing style so brisk it feels as if the context for half the set-pieces was cut out to keep things pacy, with the result that things pay off without having been properly established in the first place. That makes for a jagged viewing experience, although a movie like this no doubt presumes that audiences will be semi-inebriated, in which case, they’re bound to excuse a certain sloppiness.