While you can debate the merits of “The O.C.,” “Gossip Girl” and “Chuck,” it can’t be argued that writer/producer Josh Schwartz knows how to zero in on a target audience and cater to them specifically and successfully. Generally, his most lucrative milieu is in providing tweenage girls with lukewarm TV soap operas, where beauitful people get into rich people trouble, usually accompanied by high fashion and hip soundtracks. So it’s easy to see why Nickelodean Movies were eager to harness his skills for an “Adventures In Babysitting” meets “Superbad” picture presumably for that demographic. Take heed though, the resulting movie hardly approaches the pleasures of those films, with a result that is so tonally off balance, it feels like too many meetings with executives trying to figure out how to make a four-quadrant hit.
“Fun Size” starts of off by immediately asking the audience to buy into the notion that the attractive leads Victoria Justice and Jane Levy would be social outcasts in their high school. Playing Wren, Justice does her best to try and shoulder her role as a “nerd,” the only evidence really being that she wants to dress up as Ruth Bader Ginsburg for Halloween. Meanwhile, it’s not exactly clear why her best friend April (Levy) joins her in the status of social pariah, except by association. Anyway, the plot isn’t that complicated: they get invited Aaron’s (the coolest guy in school) Halloween party, but Wren has to babysit her troublemaking little brother Albert (Jackson Nicoll) first, and when he promptly goes missing, their plans go awry.
“Fun Size” adopts a cool guys —> jocks —> nerds heirarchy of high school that feels particularly outmoded. That’s not to say it doesn’t still exist, but even “Superbad” blurred those distinctions a bit, while “Fun Size” doesn’t have much new to say about teenage social orders. So April is mortified when Wren enlists the help of debate team dorks Roosevelt (Thomas Mann) and Peng (Osric Chau) to find her brother, particularly when they take the former’s beat up station wagon and drive down the “cool strip” of Cleveland. They might be seen! But their coollness will certainly be restored if they stop looking for Albert, and just hit Aaron’s party, with April’s selfishness in this regard getting increasingly irritating, even as the brief film clocks in at 90 minutes or so.
This is just one awkward element in a twisted pretzel of tones and narrative that “Fun Size” tries on in order to appeal to whoever might end up watching this on Nick at some point in the future. As the gang tries to find Albert, he’s off on his own subplot where he encounters a handful of different adults — none of whom seem to think to call the police when confronted by an unaccompanied pint size child roaming the city at night — and gets into a variety of broad comedy antics while dressed in his Spider-Man costume, antics that kids around a similar age might enjoy, we suppose. For the tweens that Schwartz generally caters to, Wren and April are their surrogate, but the movie struggles with its PG-13 rating to give them anything edgy to do (the handful of swear words tossed in feel distinctly out of place). Perhaps most ill-fitting of all is a minor subplot involving Wren’s mom, played by Chelsea Handler, who gets a little dramatic moment to herself in which she waxes about the travails of single parenthood. That’s not to mention the dangerous gunplay in the movie that’s played for laughs, though someone nearly gets their head blown off. It’s a lot of square pegs in round holes, and none of them fit.
If there is any silver lining to the movie, it’s provided by Thomas Middleditch, the only actor who hints at the hilarious, surreal, oddball and lively picture “Fun Size” could have been. He plays the dorky, self-narrating convenience story clerk Fuzzy, who gets intertwined with Albert’s adventures, and clearly decided to improv his way through this gig. Thank goodness he did, as he breaks out of the pre-packaged staleness of “Fun Size” to provide the movie’s few genuine laughs and moments of inspired lunacy. Alas, it’s far too little in a movie that goes through long patches of listlessness.
Perhaps most disappointing of all is the mixed messages that “Fun Size” will be sending to girls. While thankfully (and obviously) Wren learns that the coolest person in school isn’t necessarily the best guy to be hitching your heart to and chasing, it’s undercut by April’s arc. She too comes to a similar realization, but not before a sequence in which she barters with Peng and agrees to let him grab her boob for twenty seconds, in exchange for letting her escape Roosevelt’s totally uncool stationwagon. The idea that it’s okay for a teenage girl to use her body parts as currency for horny teenage guys is extraordinarly distasteful, and it’s a wonder that that execs sitting around Nickelodean’s conference table thought this was okay.
Making his directorial debut, Schwartz — who has written dozens and dozens of episodes of the aforementioned TV shows — curiously doesn’t get his pen involved here, and it’s perhaps why the entire endeavor feels so anonymous. The writing credit goes to Max Werner, a regular scribe on “The Colbert Report,” but the wit and bite of that program is entirely absent. It’s as if both Schwartz and Werner were neuteured of the very things they’ve made their careers on. Aiming for a trifecta of small kids, their older sisters and parents in the audience, “Fun Size” fails them all in a movie that is neither a trick nor a treat. [D+]