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1 review, 0 user ratings



DUFF, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"a.k.a. Her?"
1 stars

"The Duff" is a film that wants to be two very different things--it wants to be a smart and super-snarky teen comedy in mode of "Heathers," "Mean Girls" and "Easy A" and it wants to be a super-sincere story dedicated to exposing the cruelties of cyber-bullying, the importance of being yourself and other sentiments more suited for a public service announcement than a night at the multiplex. Mind you, there two approaches are not inherently impossible to merge into one but to pull them both off would require some especially nimble and nuanced storytelling to navigate that exceedingly thin line between satire and sincerity without making a mess of things. Give the makers of "The Duff" some credit for not keeping viewers in suspense for too long because it pretty much trips over that line and makes a spectacular and spectacularly bad embarrassment of itself long before the running time as crossed over into double digits. Although it clearly wants to be seen as a corrective to the usual cynically contrived teen trash nonsense, this is a film that feels as if it was made by and for that infamous focus group that decided that Andie should go off with the loathsome-but-handsome Blaine instead of the slightly-less-loathsome-but-geeky Ducky at the end of "Pretty in Pink."

Bianca (Mae Whitman) is a smart but otherwise ordinary high school senior who hangs out with her two extremely pretty and popular best friends, Casey (Bianca Santos) and Jess (Skyler Samuels), while doing her best to ignore the petty cruelties offered up on a daily basis by classmate Madison (Bella Thorne), the campus mean girl who has her own videographer chronicling her every move in anticipation of her future fame as. . .well, as something. Other than having a journalism teacher played by the fairly odious Ken Jeong, life is relatively good for Bianca, or so she thinks. The truth comes crashing down on her one night at a party when Wesley (Robbie Amell), the arrogant-but-hunky school jock who just happens to live next door to her, informs her that she is a DUFF. A DUFF, for those of you not in the know, stands for "Designated Ugly Fat Friend"--the less attractive person in a group who makes their friends look better by comparison and who is approachable and friendly enough to serves as an unknowing conduit to the hotter people. (Having repressed virtually all of my own high school memories, I cannot say for certain if this concept was in play back then but if it was, I was presumably the DUFF, save for the whole approachable and friendly thing, of course.)

At this point, I would like to interrupt in order to make a couple of brief points, the key one being the inescapable fact that even the most momentary glance at Mae Whitman reveals the inescapable fact that she is neither ugly nor fat. Of course, being age 26 in real life, she doesn't look at all like someone of high school age either, but that is a discussion for another time. The film immediately tries to cover for this and soften the blow by then having Wesley explain at length that it is more of a metaphorical title than anything else and that even attractive people can be someone else's DUFF. Nevertheless, it is an ugly and cruel moment and by then trying to dismiss it, the film essentially shows its cards and tells us that it is more interested in placating its target audience than in doing anything that might trouble them in even the slightest. The only bright side to all this is that by even bringing it up in the first place, good old Wesley, despite his hunkiness, has clearly put himself out of contention as a character of sympathy or interest for the rest of the story. Right?

Needless to say, Bianca doesn't take to this particularly well and at school the next day, she dumps Casey and Jess--who have never been anything other than nice and supportive to her--as her friends and sinks into a mild funk. However, she also has a crush on classmate Toby (Nick Eversman), whose resemblance to a younger Matthew Lillard apparently thrills her to no end, but cannot bring herself to say more than two words to him. Through circumstances too idiotic to go into here, Bianca finds herself making a deal with Wesley--she will help tutor him in biology so that he doesn't get permanently cut from the football team and he will teach her how to win over Toby through a seemingly endless array of "steps" such as changing her wardrobe, getting her properly fitted for a bra and educating her on the myriad romantic possibilities available to a young couple whose date leads them to the cozy and cuddly confines of Dave & Busters.

Unless you have literally never seen a movie before, there is very little about 'The Duff" that will come as a surprise to anyone watching it. Nevertheless, I will attempt to be circumspect about it. Will Bianca and Wesley, despite their obvious differences and the enormous cruelty he laid upon her earlier in the film, surprise themselves be eventually becoming friends and possibly something more? Will we learn that even Wesley's seemingly perfect life has a dark side to it? Will the nasty Madison, who just broke up with Wesley, be so enraged with his growing closeness to Bianca that she is driven to even nastier acts against here, such as posting embarrassing videos of her online for all to see? Will Toby turn out to be a bit of a tool? Will Bianca get back together with her friends and discover to her surprise that they were always in admiration of her all along? Will Bianca get to deliver a couple of speeches talking about how looks and popularity don't matter and that being yourself is the most important thing after all? Having said all that, will Bianca clean up real nice and turn numerous heads when she shows up at the homecoming dance? Will Bianca be humiliated again and destroy all of her classmates using her terrifying telekinetic powers to bring the place down in an orgy of flame and agony? Will viewers like myself find themselves drifting away at certain points and begin daydreaming about other and infinitely better films illustrating the horrors of high school?

That "The Duff" is a bad teen film cannot possibly come as a surprise to most observers--the deliberate laughs are nearly nonexistent, the heartfelt material is mostly laughable and the whole thing feels almost entirely cribbed from other examples of the genre--but for some reason, this one irritated me more than most of them. The chief problem is that the film is clearly working under the delusion that it is somehow smarter, funnier and more knowing than the majority of its brethren even as it traffics in the exact same cliches as its predecessors. For example, for a film that takes pains to explain that looks are not important, the kids on display all look as if they have just stepped out of an issue of "Teen Vogue" perfectly airbrushed and ready to go--the filmmakers don't even bother to give Bianca a pair of clunky glasses so that she can take them off and everyone can say "Gosh--she's purty after all!"

More troubling is the film's take on cyber-bullying, which I presume is the element meant to set this apart from the likes of "Can't Hardly Wait" or "She's All That." The film introduces the concept by having an embarrassing video of Bianca go viral (the kids actually decide to make it "viral" as though that were a smartphone option) that first makes her the laughingstock of the school and later makes her another target when the principal confiscates all the phones in response and her classmates blame her. Fine but having introduced that element--the kind of trauma that many kids today can sadly relate to--the film then blithely brushes it away as if it were nothing. Granted, I was not exactly expecting a profound meditation of the subject but if you are going to bother to introduce it at all, you should then actually deal with it rather than dismiss it in order to get to the all-important question of which non-threatening boy Bianca should wind up with, (Technically, it would have to be Wesley--since the actor playing him is 26 in real life (and, like Whitman, looks it, at least that relationship is more age-appropriate).

Another big problem with the film is that, quite frankly, I did not particularly like Bianca at all. I hasten to add that this does not mean that I don't like Mae Whitman--she was hilarious on "Arrested Development" and has provided solid support in any number of film and television projects over the years. Sadly, for her first big shot in a lead role in a movie, she has been cursed with a character who is both strangely off-putting and wildly inconsistent. She is kind of shallow (notice how the only boys that she goes for are the classic heartthrob types), mean to her own friends (who have always been sweet to her and who continue to be loyal even after she kicks them to the curb) and her stabs at being a non-conformist--such as wearing pajama bottoms to school and digging gross-out horror movies--feel a little too calculated to be convincing. (Her room may be festooned with posters for films like "Shock Waves" and "Zombie" but they come across as nothing more than indifferent set dressing than anything else.) The film also cannot figure out a consistent approach to her character either--depending on the requirements of the scene, she is either shy and awkward or brash and bold and the two sides never make for a plausible or interesting whole. Whitman does her best but even she cannot sell the part and one sequence, a trying-on-clothes montage that eventually leads to her doing obscene things with a mannequin while in the open in a crowded store (the source of the aforementioned viral video), goes on for so long and is so grotesque that it is borderline humiliating even before it hits the Internet.

Relentlessly dumb, occasionally off-putting and spectacularly tedious (it really does feel like it is going on forever at certain points), "The Duff" is a creaky contrivance that never comes close to approaching the films that it is desperately trying to emulate and wastes the talents of Mae Whitman to boot. There may be one or two amusing moments to be had--I did like the gag involving the boxes full of confiscated phones in the principal's office ringing all at once--but the rest of it is pretty much an insult to the thinking teenagers it is presumably intended to attract. Funny how a movie that theoretically celebrates the joys of ignoring conformity and being yourself is itself perfectly willing and eager to conform to the expectations of its genre.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=28012&reviewer=389
originally posted: 02/20/15 07:55:00
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USA
  20-Feb-2015 (PG-13)
  DVD: 09-Jun-2015

UK
  N/A

Australia
  20-Feb-2015


Directed by
  Ari Sandel

Written by
  Josh A. Cagan

Cast
  Bella Thorne
  Mae Whitman
  Robbie Amell
  Allison Janney
  Skyler Samuels
  Bianca A. Santos



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