That Awkward Moment's Awkward Message: Only Guys Are People

The moral of this rom-com bro-fest is that it's important to know and appreciate women as three-dimensional humans. Too bad the film doesn't do that.
Focus Features

If any genre of films is geared more towards female audiences then male, romantic comedies would be that genre. And yet, despite—or perhaps because of—their generally accepted demographic tilt, rom coms often have an almost unseemly eagerness to tell the stories of guys first, with female characters bringing up a distant, limping second. To name just a couple of recent examples, Playing For Keeps deliberately threw multiple Hollywood leading ladies into its male lead’s bed, while The Spectacular Now abandons its interesting, quirky female protagonist in order to focus on the banal daddy issues of the guy.

That Awkward Moment pushes the guy-centric rom-com even further. It is, unabashedly, all about the bromance. After Mikey (Michael B. Jordan) discovers that his wife is cheating on him, he and friends Jason (Zac Efron) and Daniel (Miles Teller) all agree to stay single to party hardy together. "This is about us right now," they declare. "Nobody changes their status." Of course, their plan goes awry when each man ends up much more than casually involved with a woman—and keeps it a secret from his buddies.

In theory, their pledge is supposed to be immature and stupid. What ensues includes plenty of homosocial adolescent flirting, as when Jason and Daniel wander around amid a bunch of dildos and playfully discuss the hypothetical details of having sex with each other, or when Mikey accidentally uses rub-on tanner while masturbating and the other two spend quality time gazing upon his orange penis. But while this is fun, it's not, we are assured, emotionally satisfying or mature. The point of the film is for the guys to realize that friendship doesn't preclude romance, and that, in fact, commitment with women is necessary for growth and adulthood.

Again, that's supposed to be the message. But the film doesn't seem quite convinced. If relationships with women are so important, why is the movie so much more interested in the dynamics between the guys? The biggest, most dramatic blow-up fight scene isn't between main couple Jason and Ellie (Imogen Poots), but between Mikey, Jason, and Daniel, as they each tearfully or bitterly confess to having cheated on the no-relationship pledge. We learn a good deal about Mikey's emotions as he mopes about hither and thither, but beyond some brief clichés about the thrill being gone, we don't have much idea what's up with his wife Vera (Jessica Lucas), or why she's left him. Daniel's girlfriend Chelsea (Mackenzie Davis) gets a bit more development, but she never has a scene without him. She's always part of his story, never the other way around.

Ellie is onscreen perhaps as much as Daniel and Mikey, and she comes across as smart, funny, and interesting. You can see why Jason falls for her—and yet, at the same time, his relationship with her seems oddly filtered through his feelings about, and relationship to, other men. After their first night together, he unaccountably and weirdly decides that she must be a prostitute; the shadow of all those other imagined men sends him racing out into the street. After their relationship hits a bump, he obsesses, not about her per se, but about all the other guys who might be sitting on her couch. Then he obsessively Facebook stalks a guy who popped up in her pictures. Even his final impassioned declaration involves ventriloquizing a conversation she had with another dude. It's like he can't see her, or interact with her, if she's not situated as the displaced object of male bonding.

While watching That Awkward Moment, I couldn't help but think about another romantic comedy narrative involving three couples: Jennifer Crusie's novel Bet Me, which has its 10th anniversary this year. As in That Awkward Moment, Crusie focuses on three male friends, each of whom finds a girl. But unlike the film, the book is willing to put you in the women's heads as well as in the men's. You see beautiful Calvin Morrisey across a crowded bar at the beginning of the novel through the eyes of Minerva Dobbs, just as you see Min across that bar through Cal's eyes. When there's screwball-comedy miscommunication, you see that miscommunication both from Cal's perspective and from Min's. And, while Cal does have commitment issues, Min is allowed to have them too. In fact, the one person in the novel who really doesn't want to commit, and who never does commit, is Min's friend Liza, who dates Cal's friend Tony through much of the book.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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