‘Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates,’ and Anna Kendrick and Aubrey Plaza Need Better Roles

Kendrick and Plaza are too often the only commendable element in terrible comedies like this. Why?

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates is a terrible movie, but that’s no crime; terrible movies come and go like the wind, particularly in these summer months (and, it seems, particularly in this year’s summer months). It stinks for a variety of reasons: its blatant aping of other, better movies; its jarring tonal shifts from gross-out comedy to serious family/romantic beats, as if we actually care about people who are painted in every other scene as the broadest cartoon caricatures; a script that clearly assumed on-set improv magic would save dud scenes; and that most desperate of pleas for unearned affection, the closing credit blooper montage. And it’s a hard-R comedy that wants badly to push buttons and shock/amuse us with its wink-wink “dirty” jokes, four- and ten- and twelve-letter words, and graphic sexual references, unaware that while dirty can be funny, dirty does not necessarily equal funny. But none of that stuff’s really all that offensive; what’s offensive is how thoroughly it wastes Anna Kendrick and Aubrey Plaza, who are too often the only commendable element in terrible comedies. Is this a case of bad luck, bad choices, or bad options?

To their credit, Kendrick and Plaza make the most of the poor material Mike and Dave hands them. The story, which gets the peculiar opening credit of “inspired by the life stories of Dave and Mike Stangle” (carefully avoiding a direct link to the Stangles’ book of the same title, which reportedly makes Tucker Max look like Sylvia Plath), concerns two fun-loving brothers – Zac Efron’s Dave and Adam Devine’s Mike – whose family-gathering antics often result in injury, destruction, and worse. With their sister’s destination wedding on the horizon, they’re given an ultimatum by their father (Stephen Root; poor, poor Stephen Root): they have to act like adults and bring dates to the wedding. Nice girls. Mike and Dave decide this free wedding trip to Hawaii makes them a big “get,” so they put an ad on Craigslist to find their dates. The ad goes viral, they end up on TV, and that’s when Alice (Kendrick) and Tatiana (Plaza) get a load of them.

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The dynamic of the duo – who are, in a touch that’s a bit too on the nose, self-dubbed “T&A” – is established early on, and does not waver. Alice is the sweet and kinda dumb girl, Tatiana is the tough bad girl. Tatiana insists they “flip the script and Bachelorette that shit,” avoiding the cattle call of responding to the ad and instead “bumping into” the dudes at a bar. Plaza and Kendrick get some laughs out of their false identities; Plaza makes like she’s a schoolteacher (“The kids in my class are gonna love this story,” she says, seductively putting on glasses), while Kendrick insists she manages a hedge fund (their portfolio includes “Fanny Mae, and Bernie Mac, and… D.L. Hughley.”)

Anyway, if you’ve seen the trailers, you’ve seen what happens next, and most of the jokes. Once they’re on the island, Alice and Tatiana show their true, drunken colors, wreaking far more havoc than their dudebro dates. There’s a bit involving an ATV excursion gone awry that’s excruciatingly lengthy, considering every ad has revealed the punch line (and the whole bit is lifted from Meet the Parents anyway). Kumail Nanjiani is brought in for a sequence so sad, you want him to show the camera his big paycheck when it’s over. Sam Richardson, who has emerged as the comic MVP of Veep, is given precisely no jokes – though there aren’t many laughs in general, and that’s before they start with the emotional romantic stuff and big deception reveals, complete with this-is-sad-and-touching score. The only thing sadder than an unfunny comedy is an unfunny comedy reaching for phony, clumsy pathos. Apatow movies are harder than they look, huh?

Director Jake Symanski – making his feature debut, following web videos, TV work, and the HBO special 7 Days in Hell – gives his camera plenty of opportunities to ogle his leading ladies’ bikini bodies, but doesn’t give them much of a chance to be funny (unless you find salty language inherently funny, in which case I’d advise you to get back to study hall). They land a few laughs, but less via Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O’Brien’s dopey script (sample of wit: there’s an entire dialogue based on Dave saying “ultimatum” and Mike thinking he’s saying “old tomato”) than their force of their own personalities. And sadly, that seems to be the rule in their films, rather than the exception.

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I’ll give Mike and Dave this: it is at least better than Dirty Grandpa, the January “comedy” that, bizarrely, also starred Plaza and Efron, is centered on a wedding, spends plenty of time on the beach, hinges on deceptions revealed to twinkly piano music, and confuses dirty with funny. But they really go all in on that last point; this story of an uptight lawyer (Efron) and his escapades with his horny, recently widowed grandfather (Robert De Niro) is credited to a first-time screenwriter named John Phillips, who I can only assume is a third-grader who just learned his swears.

Unsurprisingly, Plaza is wasted. She’s working the same naughty-girl vibe as Mike and Dave as the object of De Niro’s carnal desire, stuck with dumb single-entendres (she tells De Niro, of his golf club, “maybe you can use it to hit your balls right into my vagina”) and sad misunderstandings (when Efron despairs, before a bar brawl, “We have no crew,” the drunken Plaza replies, “We goin’ to J. Crew?”). She doesn’t get any laughs until the very end, in the long-awaited hook-up with De Niro; given exactly one character trait (hot young girl is turned on by old guy), her “pillow talk” includes such directives as “Tell me how things were better under Eisenhower” and “Tell me how the buttons on your remote control are so small you can’t find Fox News.” Critic Glenn Kenny wrote, “I have to assume [the jokes] were concocted by Plaza in an improv situation, as their verbal wit is so manifestly superior to any other spoken joke in the movie,” and he’s right – Plaza is so much better than her material that, in the only scene where it matches her, the only safe assumption is she made it up herself.

Mr-Right

Kendrick gets few such opportunities in her most recent release, the half-assed Grosse Point Blank rip-off Mr. Right. Its script (by nepotism beneficiary, “Mary Sue” designator, and general garbage person Max Landis) traps Kendrick in such a frantic variation of the god-aren’t-we-past-this-yet “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” trope that it manages to do something I previously thought impossible: it makes Anna Kendrick unlikable. As a recently dumped woman who falls for a “Bruce Lee/James Bond type of badass motherfucker” assassin (Sam Rockwell, who also deserves better), Kendrick must play a woman who is first repelled by his behavior, then turned on by it, then (of course) the helpless hostage he must save, and then (twist!) the badass by his side. Its stars struggle mightily, but none of this plays, thanks to the script’s desperate whimsy (Rockwell does his hits in a clown nose, for no discernable reason) and the overall lack of a single moment that mirrors recognizable human behavior. “I wanna do something terrible!” Kendrick announces, early in the film, and she at least did that – she did Mr. Right.

So what are we to make of this depressing mini-film festival? Kendrick and Plaza have, in other films, television shows, and talk show appearances, proven themselves delightful, talented performers – Plaza’s comic timing is to die for and she can project likability and charisma while seeming to actively resist the effort (some neat trick, that), while Kendrick is some sort of conjurer who can do comedy, drama, and musical with equal aplomb. There’s very little these two can’t do – except make garbage like this into gold. It hardly seems likely that they scoured through stacks of scripts, landed on these gems, and said, “Yes, these are worth our time and talent”; it seems more probable that these are simply all that’s out there, and when you want to work (as they apparently do), you take what you can get.

To which I’d say this: do better, movies. There’s got to be more for Plaza and Kendrick (and Alison Brie and Kristen Bell and Dakota Johnson and Gillian Jacobs and…) than lounging in bikinis and spouting dirty words. (Worth noting: all three of these films are written and directed entirely by dudes.) But as long as those are the only scripts that’re coming their way, that’s all we’re gonna get. And as Mike and Dave’s mom says, “This schtick is cute for a while, but it’s gotten stale.”

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates is out Friday. Dirty Grandpa and Mr. Right are available on Blu-ray, DVD, and on demand.