Friday, October 26, 2012

Fun Size: More trick than treat

Fun Size (2012) • View trailer
2.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for teen misbehavior, sexual content and plenty of implied raunch
By Derrick Bang

In a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly, Josh Schwartz, who brought us television’s Gossip Girl and The O.C., cited several kid-friendly classics as inspiration for his big-screen directorial debut.

When Wren (Victoria Justice) and Roosevelt (Thomas Mann) take a wrong turn, winding
up in the downtown cruise zone on Halloween night, they run afoul of a hot-tempered
Thor (Patrick de Ledebur). Trying to elude this angry bully will result in a vulgar sight gag
that typifies what is frequently wrong with this clumsy film.
It’s an impressive list, ranging from Adventures in Babysitting and Home Alone to The Goonies and Sixteen Candles. Any director would be proud to land in their company.

Alas, that’s unlikely to happen with Fun Size, thanks to the bewildering and frequently distasteful level of raunch contained within Max Werner’s screenplay.

Werner, a longtime writer for TV’s The Colbert Report, seems to have misplaced his target audience. Parents aren’t likely to appreciate exposing their young children to this script’s sleazier elements — the PG-13 rating is well earned — but, at the same time, the film certainly isn’t cheeky enough for teens. In that respect, Fun Size is neither fish nor fowl, and probably won’t please anybody.

Which is a shame, because the core story’s heart is in the right place, and some of the elements in Werner’s screenplay are quite funny. They’re simply overshadowed by sniggering sex jokes that land like lead balloons.

Really, what were Paramount and Nickelodeon thinking? Victoria Justice is well known as a wholesome presence on the latter’s Zoey 101, iCarly and Victorious; dumping her into a storyline that tries to milk humor from (for example) the image of a giant mechanical chicken humping a car — don’t ask — seems the height of miscast folly.

Justice stars as Wren, a mildly geeky teen hoping to enjoy an exciting Halloween with best friend April (Jane Levy). With some luck, they might score an invite to the party hosted by hunky Aaron Riley (Thomas McDonell): definitely the social event of the season.

Wren’s home life is a shambles, thanks to a bratty younger brother who never talks — Jackson Nicoll, as Albert — and a mother, Joy, who is trying to recapture her youth by dating a loser half her age. Joy is played by Chelsea Handler, who’s definitely in search of a smuttier movie. (Schwartz and Werner try to oblige.)

The family dysfunction results from the recent death of Wren’s father. Albert’s self-imposed silence dates to that tragedy, as does Joy’s loss of confidence. As a result, Wren frequently winds up looking after Albert: a near-impossible task, given the little guy’s determination to function as an ambulatory disaster zone.

Oh, and we’re introduced to Albert as he sits, naked, on the pot. Charming image.

Wren’s Halloween plans are shattered when she’s forced to take Albert trick-or-treating, so that Joy can attend a party with her boy-toy. Naturally, Wren loses track of the kid, who subsequently embarks on a series of adventures while his sister tries to find him again.

The Adventures in Babysitting vibe emerges at this point, and at times Werner hits the right notes.

Albert’s silence is a great narrative gimmick, since it allows his new chance acquaintances to make assumptions based on their own unresolved issues. The displaced little guy immediately bonds with Fuzzy (Thomas Middleditch), a Quickie-Mart worker bee still mooning over the girl who dumped him long ago; a plan for revenge is hatched, which Albert seems to embrace. (Hard to tell, since he doesn’t say anything.)

Wren and April, meanwhile, have hooked up with geeks-to-the-core Roosevelt (Thomas Mann) and Peng (Osric Chau), both wearing costumes so square that April — proud of her cleavage-baring “sexy kitty” outfit — prays not to be seen by any of the cool kids. Roosevelt has long been sweet on Wren; the question is whether she’ll notice, amid her doe-eyes for Aaron Riley.

Joy, meanwhile, is having her own problems at what looks like a frat party gone rancid.

And so it goes, as the night progresses, with Wren and her friends somehow just missing Albert on several occasions, as various complications further stir this tempestuous pot.

Justice nails her character’s appealing blend of intelligence, sensitivity and goofy charm. Clearly, Wren should be one of her school’s popular girls, but she probably sabotaged that standing by raising her hand too many times in class, and by joining too many extracurricular clubs.

Nicoll is adorable as Albert, although it takes a few scenes to look beyond the kid’s acting-out antics, in order to spot the sad little boy within. He has a wonderfully expressive face, which is crucial, since his body language needs to convey a (real or imagined) wealth of emotions.

Levy is just snarky enough as our heroine’s much more daring best friend, and Mann is appropriately nerdy as the shy but resolute guy who can’t find the courage to tell Wren how he feels about her.

Chau isn’t well directed, and Peng therefore winds up as little more than an ultra-dork thrown into the story merely to look and sound stupid. Middleditch, similarly, can’t give a credible line reading to save his life; the film grinds to a halt every time Fuzzy unleashes another of his lame monologues.

Handler, as mentioned, belongs in a different movie. So does Johnny Knoxville, whose late-entry appearance as a candy-stealing scumbag builds to an uncomfortable subplot that also has no business being in this story.

On the other hand, Riki Lindhome makes the most of her brief appearance as the costumed Galaxy Scout, an animé-inspired gal who becomes one of Albert’s new friends. And Kerri Kenney and Ana Gasteyer are absolutely hilarious as Barb and Jackie, Roosevelt’s two moms.

Indeed, the scenes with Roosevelt and his mothers perfectly capture the gently satiric vibe that should have characterized the entire film. Kenney and Gasteyer mercilessly send up the overly holistic, Berkeley-style atmosphere that makes California such an easy target for the rest of the country; Werner doesn’t miss an exaggerated note, from Barb and Jackie’s multi-lingual fluency, to their vegan lifestyle.

Werner similarly understands how to draw humor from the “calamities” guaranteed to humiliate teens trying to fit in, such as when Wren, April, Roosevelt and Peng accidentally head their car into the downtown “cool cruising zone” ... just as their broken radio spews an opera aria, at full volume. Could anything be more mortifying?

Such moments, when Schwartz and Werner make things work, merely amplify the thudding misfires when the story strays into smuttier territory. Fun Size — which is a terrible title, just in passing — disappoints more than it delights; I rather doubt it’ll grace anybody’s resume with pride.

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