'Blockers' Review: Not Even John Cena Can Outshine This Film's Young Stars

Blockers

‘Blockers’ is a battle between two movies: a solid R-rated adult comedy and a raunchy teen comedy for the ages.

It’s easy to walk into Blockers thinking you know what you’re going to get. Each of the film’s biggest names — Ike Barinholtz, Leslie Mann, and John Cena — comes with a type of character that they play best, and the trailers for Blockers promise a movie that plays to each of their strengths. What’s so surprising then is not that these three actors fail to deliver, but that they’re thoroughly upstaged at every turn by the young actresses playing their daughters. It may be billed as an adult comedy, but it’s in the moments when it becomes a raunchy teenage comedy that Blockers becomes one for the record books.

Julie (Kathryn Newton), Kayla, (Geraldine Viswanathan), and Sam (Gideon Adlon) have been friends since their very first day of elementary school, which means their parents have always been in each other’s lives. Mitchell (Cena), the golden retriever of the group, has always tried to spark up a friendship with Lisa (Mann), but the latter’s status as a single parent often causes her to keep others at arm’s length. Meanwhile, Hunter’s (Barinholtz) divorce has made him the black sheep of the parent group; he is regarded by both Lisa and Mitchell with some combination of suspicion and disgust.  That is, until prom night. Anxious to lose their virginity before heading off to college, Julie, Kayla, and Sam agree to a sex pact via a series of text messages, text messages that — unfortunately for them — are intercepted by Mitchell and Lisa. Dragging along Hunter despite his protestations, the two parents decide it is their responsibility to save their daughters from a terrible first sexual encounter. Along the way, they’ll experience exploding cars, a horny Gary Cole, and an infamous butt-chugging battle with a group of high school seniors.

There are essentially two movies in play throughout Blockers. In the first movie, Cena, Barinholtz, and Mann go through the expected (though not un-funny) paces as a trio of adults desperately trying to protect their daughters from the realities of adulthood one last time. While Barinholtz and Mann are pretty much as-expected — Barinholtz in particular has a few nice scenes as an absentee father surprisingly in-tune with his daughter’s sexuality — it’s Cena’s role as the clueless parent that, unsurprisingly, steals the show. Cena has spent the last few years trying out a variety of character types in Hollywood, but there’s nothing quite as funny as watching a human action figure play a helicopter parent. Mitchell is about as far from John Cena as anyone could hope to be, and Blockers gets tremendous mileage out of his various shocked reactions to the typical teenage experience.

And if Blockers had offered nothing more than these parents chasing their offscreen children, it still would have been a serviceable summer comedy, but there’s a second gear to the film. When it acts more like a teenager comedy, the film is absolutely hysterical. The filmmakers have found a trio of future stars in Newton, Viswanathan, and Adlon. Independently, they’re each given compelling and likable storylines, but when the three share a screen, Blockers hits notes on par with any of the great teenage comedies. Part of this is the charming lack of animosity or frustration between the three. Rather than use prom as a transitional narrative device with a group of friends worried about maintaining those relationships in the future the film simply allows them to be close, to revel in their new experiences and enjoy their night together. Without the presence of artificial conflict, their banter is the movie’s unquestioned strength.

This imbalance of comedic power also means that Blockers starts to run out of steam at about the halfway point. Much of the adult comedy is centered around bits of physical comedy, like the one where Mitchell and Hunter get trapped in a house with a middle-aged blindfolded couple engaging in some prom night roleplaying. Even the teenage bits — which use the friendships and sexuality of these girls as a source of organic humor — start to wind down a little as Julie, Kayla, and Sam split up to spend a night with their different prom dates. When teenagers and parents finally meet face-to-face, Blockers even puts the onus on the teens to absolve their parents of their terrible behavior, a weird note to end on given the relative strengths of the storylines.

All of which makes Blockers a good-enough comedy with moments of absolute greatness. It can, and should, play extremely well with audiences across the country, but one can’t help but shake the feeling that it could’ve been better if it had focused only on its teenage characters. Like most comedies in the Apatow ouevre, the film knows how to deliver joke density and minor cameos in spades — Hannibal Burress may not be in the movie much, but my god, does he make the most of every one of his scenes — but it will be the performances and authenticity of its young stars that keeps Blockers relevant for years to come. Casting agents take note.

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Matthew is a feature writer for Film School Rejects and a freelance film critic at the Austin Chronicle. His writing can be found at /Film, RogerEbert.com, Playboy, and more.