It's not easy to pinpoint when it happened, but at some moment in the not-too-distant cinematic past—maybe on the journey from American Pie to The Hangover—the R-rated studio comedy became a pose.
That perhaps makes it little different from anything else related to the MPAA ratings process and Hollywood releases—every PG for an animated film is a desperate plea not to be ignored by tweens, and every PG-13 summer blockbuster is a "we're cool, but not too edgy" cash grab—but this particular phenomenon has evolved in its own unique way. Once released from the constraints of a PG-13, filmmakers start to assume that their audience won't settle for anything less than the most outrageous gags. Every red-band trailer and outtake designed specifically for the unrated DVD version begins to reek of calculation: They want viewers to believe they're on the razor's edge of multiplex-approved naughtiness. Why bother with anything just that side of the PG-13 border, when you can suggest that you're just this side of NC-17?
But how does this serve a comedy's ostensible goal of being, you know, funny? It's hard to watch something like Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates and not wonder if there were times when the funniest joke was sacrificed on the altar of the wildest joke. When it gets busy and frantic, the strengths that make for its biggest laughs get lost.
The premise is based on the lives of real-life brothers Mike (Adam Devine) and Dave Stangle (Zac Efron), who became viral sensations when they posted a Craigslist ad offering a trip to Hawaii to two women who would accompany them to their sister's wedding. In the film incarnation, the reason for the ad is based on the siblings' seemingly infinite capacity to screw up family gatherings, and the demand by their parents and sister, Jeanie (Sugar Lyn Beard), that they bring nice girls to keep them in line. But the ladies who cleverly work that angle—best friends Alice (Anna Kendrick) and Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza)—aren't exactly the stable, serious pair they pretend to be, and their own love of partying could prove just as disastrous.
That's actually a pretty terrific premise for a slow-build comedy: Four people at an occasion where they all need to suppress their immature volatility, but every one of them is a short fuse and a match waiting to light the other's. The script by Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O'Brien (Neighbors) does get some good material out of the early stages of this untenable relationship: Alice's inability to lie without spiraling into ever-more-implausible stories; the brothers' obvious delight at being with someone who finally meets with their frustrated parents' approval.
There's also a basic structural problem with that dynamic of four co-leads: The story is supposed to be equally about all of them, but the women are far funnier and more interesting than the men. Kendrick's immense talents have often been applied to the "good girl" character, so it's terrific to watch her stretch in a part where she can be a goofy physical comedian. Plaza similarly nails her manipulative teasing of Mike, turning on a dime from prim fake teacher to party animal. Their Romy and Michele-esque chemistry as gleeful underachievers posing at conventionality makes for much better material than the underdeveloped tension between the Stangle boys over Mike holding Dave back from his potential.
But the bigger issue is that this is yet another R-rated comedy with a mission statement of pushing more envelopes than a postal worker at Christmastime. So we get the Stangles' cousin Terry (Alice Wetterlund), an omnivorously horny bisexual; we get the obligatory gay panic as a guy in drag replies to the brothers' ad; we get a wild bush of pubic hair as a punch line, and an increasingly shrill exchange about whether or not there's a deviant sexual behavior known as the "push-pop." There are some really big laughs mixed into all of this—Kumail Nanjiani, after this movie and Central Intelligence, has become the summer's cameo scene-stealer—but the desperation to go for "Did we just do that? Oh, hell yes we did!" starts to overwhelm it. Somewhere in the vast, unexplored territory between PG-13 and NC-17, there's a place where comedy can be for adults without seeming quite so childish about it. CW