‘Blockers’ is a sweet but safe gender-swapped ‘American Pie’ (Movie review)

The films of the “American Pie” trilogy open with Jim caught in an embarrassing – and to the audience, hilarious – sexual situation by his parents. Nearly two decades later, “Blockers” – which features three high school senior girls making a prom-night sex pact — starts by showing how similar mother Lisa (Leslie Mann) and daughter Julie (Kathryn Newton) are. They sleep in the same position, and brush their teeth next to each other in the same bathroom mirror. The generation gap has narrowed in the years since those iconic awkward exchanges between Jason Biggs and Eugene Levy.

The fact that “Blockers” – now available for home viewing — has the same premise as “American Pie” invites comparisons, but director Kay Cannon (writer of the “Pitch Perfect” films) isn’t interested in mimicking that franchise’s raunchy-joke momentum. There are a few innovative and humorous set pieces that do the genre proud, but they feel like inserts into this film rather than the point of it.

While “Blockers” would seemingly give the girls’ point of view in contrast to the boys’ perspective in “American Pie,” the script by Brian and Jim Kehoe spends much more time on the POV of the parents: Lisa, Mitchell (pro wrestler John Cena) and Hunter (“The Mindy Project’s” Ike Barinholtz). Lisa is a single mom (we don’t get the backstory), Mitchell is happily married, and Hunter is a divorcee trying to get back in his daughter’s life. When Julie’s computer chat program explodes with talk of the pact, the parents attempt to c***-block their daughters.

Somewhat surprisingly, there is hardly any overt socio-political commentary in “Blockers,” except for one scene where Mitchell’s wife Marcie (“No Tomorrow’s” Sarayu Blue) calls out the trio for their hypocrisy. They say girls should not be parented differently than boys, then argue it’s different when it’s their own daughter.

The gender-swapping is by its nature a commentary, though. The boyfriends here get roughly the same amount of characterization as the girlfriends in “American Pie”: a little bit, but mostly we see them through their partner’s gaze. Tying in with the flipped perspective, the film features multiple shots of male genitalia but not much female anatomy is on display.

Accidentally or not, “Blockers” makes a point about the eroding notion of privacy, and how there should still be a place for it in the modern world. Mann is a delight in a showcase sequence where Lisa finds herself under a hotel-room bed when Julie and her boyfriend enter (I’ll let it slide that hotel-room beds usually don’t have undersides). While Lisa had desired throughout the movie to officiate her daughter’s activities, when she’s in the moment she realizes how wrong it is, and tries to sneak out.

The film’s tone is uneven, particularly illustrated by a scene where Barinholtz shines as Hunter breaks down while telling Lisa and Mitchell his side of the story of his divorce. It’s undercut by a forgettable joke. While “Blockers” ultimately recognizes that all of its characters are human beings worthy of compassion, Hunter’s flailing inability to break into this friend circle is a bit frustrating.

I also get a sense that some shock-value sequences were cut short in order to secure an R rating rather than an NC-17. (And it’s interesting to note that the film goes with the safe title “Blockers” instead of the edgier “C***-blockers.”) The trio of parents finds themselves in a house where two adults are engaged in blindfolded foreplay. In order to not betray their presence, Mitchell and Hunter participate. Just as it’s getting particularly insane, we cut to the aftermath. It leaves a sense that “Blockers” isn’t totally committed to its jokes.

The pact plays out the same way as in “American Pie.” Whether they follow through on it or not, each of the girls’ romantic relationships moves at its own pace, and ultimately their friendship is what matters at the end of prom night. Because “Blockers” focuses on the parents, these girls don’t pop the same way the guys do in “American Pie.” The closest to a compelling romance is a cute and stylized one: that of Hunter’s daughter Sam (Gideon Adlon) and fellow lesbian geek girl Angelica (Ramona Young), who is bathed in flattering light every time Sam gazes at her.

“Blockers” is a smile-on-your face comedy more so than a laugh-out-loud comedy. While the joke premises are competent (if sparsely peppered), the real pleasures come from watching the troupe of Mann, Barinholtz and Cena.

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