For three seasons on “Arrested Development,” Mae Whitman was drabbed down and good-naturedly played Ann Veal/Her/Bland aka George Michael Bluth’s dull, unattractive girlfriend. And so, when it comes to “The DUFF” — an acronym for Designated Ugly Fat Friend — choosing Whitman for the lead role fits in the weird space between obvious and ridiculous. It’s obvious and reflexive if your only impression of the actress is from her days on the cult comedy, and ridiculous if you believe that in actual, regular reality, Whitman is anything like Ann. Believing that Whitman is the “ugly fat friend” is just one of the many things you’ll have allow for if you have any chance of enduring this tedious teen comedy from beginning to end.
The story centers on Bianca (Whitman), a high school senior with two conventionally “hot” best friends, Casey (Bianca Santos) and Jess (Skyler Samuels), and a crush on Vespa-riding, guitar-playing, shaggy-haired, nice-guy musician, Toby (Nick Eversman). But her world is turned upside down when her neighbor/childhood friend/popular jock Wesley (Robbie Amell) casually informs Bianca that she’s the DUFF in her trio of friends; the one who’s there to make the others look better. Bianca is astonished and hurt, but soon forms a pact with Wesley, who has done her the favor of pointing out her social flaws: she’ll help him pass Chemistry so he can keep his college football scholarship, if he in turn works his magic and makes her dateable.
Now, Wesley does politely go out of his way to point out that Bianca is neither fat nor ugly, comparatively speaking. The presumption here is that cult movie loving, subtitle reading, friendly, funny, and smart Bianca is simply undateable when measured against the far less interesting, stereotypically pretty girls, led by the school’s main mean girl and the movie’s villain, Madison (Bella Thorne). She’s an aspiring reality show star with an on-again, off-again relationship with Wesley, who becomes quite threatened when he starts spending a lot of time with Bianca. And if you’ve never seen a movie before, you’ll probably be unaware of what eventually happens between Bianca and Wesley, so I won’t spoil it for you But for everyone else, you’ll see it coming from a mile away.
Based on the book by Kody Keplinger, I can’t speak for the source material, but the film’s message is certainly muddled. The intentions are good: outer beauty isn’t as important as learning to be confident with the person that you are. And yet, this is juxtaposed with Bianca getting a proper bra, a really nice dress and learning dating tips. Granted, these measures are eventually balanced by Bianca’s own approach to everything, but director Ari Sandel, working with a script by Josh A. Cagan, doesn’t have the deftness to really convey how Bianca’s personality turns conventional wisdom into her own unique, attractive qualities. But before he can run, Sandel needs to learn how to walk. The movie’s technical execution, right down to where establishing shots are placed, are distractingly perfunctory. It’s not a surprise there’s not much nuance to be found elsewhere.
But thank goodness for Mae Whitman, who is easily the MVP of “The DUFF,” and goes a long way in making the picture even remotely watchable. Just as she did on “Arrested Development,” she owns her role as the supposedly dowdy one (though far less believably uncool here), and is often the only energetic spark the film has going for it when the script is tiredly running through every cliché in the teen movie handbook (besties are broken up, Mean Queen enacts some horrible scheme, our hero embarrasses herself in front of the guy she’s pining for). Whitman’s energy gets kicked up a notch whenever she’s joined by Robbie Amell, with the pair breezily selling a friendship that has grown and evolved since they took baths together as kids. And a special shoutout has to go to Allison Janney as Bianca’s mom, who, following her divorce, became inspired by a clip from “The Simpsons” and launched a new career as a motivational speaker and author. She’s terrific and funny, and if the whole movie was the sequence of her character joining the e-dating world stretched to ninety minutes, I would’ve been pleased (hey Hollywood, please develop a movie about a middle aged woman finding love on the internet starring Allison Janney, stat). But try as they might, that trio of actors alone can’t keep up the creaky comedy. It also finds Ken Jeong appearing, once again, in a screechingly unfunny role, who manages to get more screen time than the immensely more talented Romany Malco, who gets saddled with the small, thankless part of the high school principal.
The teen comedy genre is filled with few classics and dozens more of would-be contenders. All of them are seeking to capture the authenticity and heart of the teenage experience, with good humor and insight. Obviously, this film is nowhere near the benchmark standards, but perhaps in a bitter irony, the earnest, yet consistently misfiring “The DUFF,” makes all those other movies look even better. [D+]