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Non-Review Review: Blockers

Blockers is a lot funnier and a lot more endearing than its two-line synopsis might suggest.

The premise of Blockers is the stuff of stock teenage sex comedies, right down to the branding on the poster. As if worried that audiences might not get the substance of the comedy, advertising for Blockers prominently features the silhouette of a rooster above the title of the film, as if to assure potential viewers exactly what type of blocking is taking place. Blockers positions itself very candidly and very bluntly as a broad and old-fashioned story about teenagers having sex.

Prom here to eternity.

The basic plot of Blockers finds three parents discovering that their daughters have made a pact to lose their virginity on prom night. These three parents then embark upon an odyssey to prevent the planned sexual intercourse from occurring. As one might expect, all manner of complications and hijinks ensure, with the canny children struggling to stay one step ahead of their determined (and occasionally resourceful) pursuer. It is hardly the most innovative of concepts, even if it is a sturdy framework for comedic set pieces and humour concerning bodily functions.

However, what is most remarkable about Blockers is the way in which it uses this familiar framework to engage with its premise in a surprisingly nuanced and insightful way, avoiding (and even directly rebuffing) the reactionary attitudes baked into the core concept. The result is perhaps the most sincere and endearing film ever to include the phrase “butt-chugging.”

Taking the Cena-ic route.

Blockers is undoubtedly a juvenile and gross-out comedy. The film never pretends to be anything else. Blockers understands exactly what it is expected to be, with plenty of jokes about projectile vomiting or objects going in places where they should not go. The film is functionally and formally a teenage sex comedy, and is not a subversion of the genre in any tangible sense. Over its runtime, Blockers delivers more than its fair share of jokes about nudity and basic bodily function.

As one might expect given the genre, some of these jokes work and some of them don’t. Blockers is essentially constructed as a series of comedic set pieces, with some landing very well and others clumsily misfiring. Blockers manages a fairly respectable hit-to-miss ratio, and the movie’s relatively episodic structure means that the film never gets too bogged down in a gag that isn’t playing well. Blockers is also elevated by an endearing commitment to its premise, and a primary cast that is never less than game.

A date with destiny.

Leslie Mann, John Cena and Ike Barinholtz are not necessarily comedy “stars” in the same way that performers like Seth Rogan or Will Ferrell might be. Instead, the three leads in Blockers has spent years building up impressive portfolios as supporting players in studio comedies. This lack of obvious comedic star power works to Blockers advantage, with none of the three leads exuding a persona that might overwhelm the film. Blockers also benefits from an understanding of those core performers, structuring itself in such a way as to never push any of its three leads outside of their comfort zones.

This is perhaps most notable in the case of John Cena. In some ways, Blockers represents Cena’s big push as a comedic lead, building off smaller turns in earlier films like Trainwreck or Daddy’s Home 2 or Tour de Pharmacy. Cena has a natural comedic talent, and with a strong sense of timing and a knack for exaggerated reaction shots. Blockers capitalises on these strengths, ensuring that Cena’s character is the one most frequently placed in broadly comedic situations so as to play to Cena’s strengths. Some of the best laughs in Blockers come from Cena delivering an awkward look of wide-eyed befuddlement.

Chugging along nicely.

At the same time, Blockers conspicuously makes a point to avoid placing too much dramatic weight on Cena, instead relying on his two co-stars to provide more emotional nuance. This is particularly noticeable in the case of Ike Barinholtz, who finds himself cast in the obligatory role of “the crazy one” of the leading trio, and who is also the only cast member who gets a genuinely affecting scene of reconciliation with his daughter. There is something canny in the structuring of Blockers, a sense that director Kay Cannon and writers Brian Kehoe and Jim Kehoe understand their performers’ strengths.

However, Blockers is most notable for what’s happening beneath the familiar surface. Blockers is sincere and oddly affirming, a genuinely (and overtly) feminist and sex-positive movie that makes a point to articulate and discuss the politics at play in its basic premise. Blockers repeatedly discusses the double standards that exist in teen sex comedies, where sexual adventurism is encouraged for young men but discouraged for young women; characters point out that these three leads would be much less likely to engage in a campaign to stop their sons from having sex on prom night.

Everyone knows that trust spying is the basis of any strong parent-child relationship.

Blockers does this in a manner that never feels didactic or cynical. There is never a sense that Blockers is lecturing the characters or the audience, simply articulating something that a lesser comedy would leave hanging in the air. There is something endearing in Blockers‘ willingness to express these ideas aloud, without seeming mean-spirited or unnecessarily aggressive. One of the more appealing aspects of Blockers is the care that the film takes in ensuring that the children at the centre of the story are never the butt of any of its jokes. (In fact, the film suggests the children are more mature than their parents.)

Indeed, Blockers is surprisingly affectionate towards all of its major characters. Even as it points out the folly of the leading trio’s prom night odyssey, Blockers makes it clear that these parents are not simply on a mission to preserve their daughters’ “innocence.” Instead, the film understands that this absurd quixotic mission is a desperate attempt by these parents to hold on to some control over their children’s lives, rooted in their identity as parents and anxiety about what they might be outside of that definition. There are no villains here, even as the film points out its protagonists’ flaws.

The Parents’ Trap.

Refreshingly for a major studio comedy, Blockers is set in a world largely populated by decent and well-meaning people. There is no convenient “bad guy”, no lurking threat, no implied violence. Its teenage characters all seem well-adjusted and capable of finding their own way in the world, despite the anxiety felt by their parents. There are no predators, no fiends, no monsters. There are just people who want to have a good time, and who are mindful of and compassionate towards other. There is something very dignified in Blockers, which pays subtle (but careful) attention to issues like consent and inebriation.

In fact, there’s probably something to said for the way that mainstream studio comedies are slowly moving the needle in terms of liberal and progressive attitudes. Other recent examples include Bad Neighbours 2, another film produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, a similarly crass and broad comedy that was nevertheless anchored in a feminist and sex-positive perspective. These sorts of comedies are likely to attract a large and young audience, potentially jump-starting necessary conversations on these topics at a young age.

We like Ike.

Films like Blockers and Bad Neighbours 2 are more likely to be seen in conservative parts of the world than more overtly progressive movies like Moonlight or A Fantastic Woman. This is not to diminish the importance of such films, or of representation of a commendable objective of itself. At the same time, these sorts of conventional comedies arguably do more to advance feminist and sex-positive values than dozens of more prestigious art house films, due to their broader cultural impact.

Blockers is an enjoyable and endearing comedy that is a lot smarter (and, crucially, a lot kinder) than it might first appear.

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