By Mick LaSalle
"That Awkward Moment" gets off to an unpromising start, when Zac Efron, talking in voiceover, tells us that he has been sitting on a park bench for two hours, that it's February, and he's freezing. Meanwhile, he is dressed like it's April and registering no distress at all, no shivering, no red nose, no miserable expression. And so the questions arise: Has anyone involved in the production ever visited New York in February? Will the whole movie be like this -- unobservant, full of empty gestures and pointless narration?
And the answer is no. "That Awkward Moment" is an entertaining movie that, despite some big flaws -- especially near the finish -- does the hard work of showing two relationships originating and growing. It's an attempt to tell a modern story about how love is done in 2014, and though it ultimately leans too much on genre cliché, it reveals some of the tensions that today's young adults experience in their romantic lives -- the impersonality of hook-up culture in collision with the human desire and need for intimacy.
The movie revolves around three friends, all in their late 20s, and the "awkward moment" of the title refers to the one that inevitably it happens to after several weeks of dating: One lover says to the other, "So . . ." -- followed by a question such as "Where are we heading?" or "What are we doing?" The two single guys in the triumvirate of buddies, Jason (Zac Efron) and Daniel (Miles Teller) want to avoid romantic entanglements and just have fun. On the periphery, there's a married pal (Michael B. Jordan), who has just found out that his wife is unfaithful and wants a divorce.
Both Teller and Efron play breezy guys, who are very good at funny banter. Actually, it's possible that writer-director Tom Gormican has made their dialogue interchangeable, and it's only because Efron and Teller are so different in style that we don't hear the similarities. Efron is an old-time leading man, an updated Tyrone Power, while Teller is a sly comedian. As it is in the nature of romantic comedies that love must be affirmed, both men start dating women that they care about, and the saving virtue of the movie is that the audience also cares and is made to understand the mutual attractions.
Easily, "That Awkward Moment" could have been annoying. It's another movie that makes picking up beautiful women in bars look as easy as picking lint off of upholstery, and there are so many references to Facebook that it seems like a product placement. But the two young women in the film, Imogen Poots and Mackenzie Davis, are very good, and Gormican directs and cuts the film so that they hold their own.
Poots has some particularly strong moments as Ellie, a young publisher who thinks she might be in love with Jason. You might remember Poots, an English actress, for her remarkable scene in "A Late Quartet," in which she explodes with pent-up rage. Here, she keeps her powder dry but has many close-ups in which she looks at Efron as if thinking, "Are you the man I thought you were, or are you turning out to be something else, something a lot worse?" It's a look that men will recognize.
In its last 20 minutes, "That Awkward Moment" falls off a bit by doing two things romantic comedies often do, no matter how much we might wish they wouldn't: 1) There are unnecessary complications, with people misbehaving in unexpected ways, just to stretch out the action; and 2) We get one of those public confessions of love, of a kind that no one has done well since "Jerry Maguire."
The reversion to formula takes a pleasing comedy and drops it down a notch, but "That Awkward Moment" is still very easy to like.