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Ebiri on That Awkward Moment: A ‘Romantic Comedy’ in Which Zac Efron Plays a Sociopath

In the new psychological thriller That Awkward Moment, Zac Efron gives an uncannily cool performance as a sociopath whose promiscuous ways are interrupted by the arrival of a particularly adorable new prey, played by Imogen Poots. The film, largely centered around this vapid monster’s insincere but tragically effective wooing of his sassy, yet vulnerable female victim, could have easily been mistaken for a romantic comedy. But writer-director Tom Gormican and Efron clearly signal to us what kind of film it is by making sure the actor never emotes — that the icky shadow of human feeling and passion never passes across his immobile, dreamy face.

The film follows three young men — hunky player Jason (Efron), nebbishy player Daniel (Miles Teller), and responsible family man Mikey (Michael B. Jordan) — who were best friends in college and are now making their lives in New York. As a paramour tearfully breaks up with him in one of the film’s opening scenes, Jason confides to us in voice-over, “I wasn’t confused that she was breaking up with me. I was confused that she thought we were even dating.” Efron conveys the character’s insincerity well in these opening scenes, and — again — were this film to be a romantic comedy, it would have been interesting to see how the story took this soulless, calculating figure and turned him into something resembling an actual person. But Efron’s complete refusal (or, perhaps, inability) to convey anything resembling emotion or tenderness doesn’t seem particularly suited to romantic comedy. And That Awkward Moment seems to understand that. How else to explain, for instance, a late scene where Jason refuses to attend a funeral important to Ellie, because it would somehow make them officially an “item”? Only a sociopath would behave this carelessly, and as such, That Awkward Moment makes for an interesting study in abnormal criminal behavior.

The somewhat more sarcastic Daniel is kind of a Jason-in-training: He too goes around bedding random women he meets in bars, but instead of playing the emotionless jerk card like Jason does, he pretends to be the young, innocent virgin. Mikey, on the other hand, is the responsible one, the one who “checked all the boxes” after college — going to med school, getting married, getting a job. Unfortunately, for him, his wife wants a divorce, after bedding down with a strapping Morris Chestnut type. So, in solidarity with the newly single Mikey, Jason and Daniel vow to each other that they’ll remain single — which seems an innocuous enough promise, since they’re committed singles to begin with. Alas, these plans are soon upended by the arrival in Jason’s life of Ellie (Poots), a young publishing assistant, and by Daniel’s realization that he is actually quite attracted to his very close friend Chelsea (Mackenzie Davis). But because these characters have a pact — and not just a pact, but a Movie Pact, which means that it must not be broken except in the most ridiculously inane way possible — they keep their burgeoning long-lasting relationships from each other.

If the film did want to be a romantic comedy — and again, believe me, this is purely hypothetical — it would have most likely put the story’s focus on Daniel, who is funnier, or Mikey, who seems to be more romantic, as opposed to Jason, who is cool and calculating and quite possibly not even human. The actors would certainly be better suited to the genre: Teller brings a jokey energy to the immature Daniel, and Jordan’s puppy-dog woundedness as Mikey is touching.  The women are excellent as well: The broad-featured Poots does a fine balancing act between confident NYC dreamer and needy young thing, and Mackenzie Davis, as Daniel’s gal pal cum paramour, is something of a revelation with her irresistible casualness and strangely refined sexiness — at times, I wanted the entire movie to be about her.

In such a scenario, Efron’s Jason could have made for interesting supporting comic relief, and the actor might have been allowed a certain amount of devilish charisma; think back, for example, to Vince Vaughn’s motor-mouth lady-killer Trent in Swingers. As a leading man, however, Efron has never been good at conveying depth, and the siren song of his looks has shattered its share of films on the treacherous reefs of emotional vapidity. In The Lucky One,* he did okay making doe eyes with Taylor Schilling, but he couldn’t do the tormented veteran thing. In That Awkward Moment, he starts off as a craven, soulless dirtbag, and he seems very adept at conveying disingenuousness. But the emotional arc he’s been outfitted with is betrayed by the actor’s inability to transform in any meaningful way. The effect is downright chilling. And, might I add again, neither romantic nor funny.

* This post has been corrected, as it initially confused The Lucky One with The Brave One.

Photo: Focus Features