The kids are all right in “Good Boys.” The adults are something else. If you’re familiar with the crude comedy of misadventure and sentimental education — every generation has its self-defining favorite — you have pretty much seen this movie. The big difference (cue the elevator pitch) is that this time the boys are boys, specifically 12-year-olds whose innocence about sex, drugs, women, themselves, is grist for a feature-length joke.
Sometimes the joke is funny and sometimes not, a familiar hit-and-miss ratio for the production team of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who have established a comedy brand that’s equal parts raunchiness and sentimentality (“This Is the End,” “Sausage Party”). The most obvious model for “Good Boys” is their hit “Superbad,” a sweet ’n’ silly coming-of-age tale about three high school seniors trying to lose their virginity before heading off to college. Written by Rogen and Goldberg, “Superbad” owes much to Judd Apatow, a producer and comedy spirit guide who understands that human frailties tend to make the laughs stick.
In “Good Boys” that frailty is existential, a matter of tender age and being. Size matters too, of course, particularly in the case of the lead boy, Max (Jacob Tremblay), who’s dwarfed by nearly everyone else and whose slight build serves as a constant, sometimes uneasy reminder of just how young he is. Along with his best friends, Lucas (Keith L. Williams), and Thor (Brady Noon), Max is in the sixth grade and freaking out over the customary things: older kids, being cool, girls, his body. Max knows that something is happening to him and while he has a grasp on his metamorphosis, he is completely unprepared to deal with it.
This makes Max vulnerable — he is, after all, a child — a state of being the movie exploits. Sometimes this exploitation is lightly amusing and good-natured, as when Max curses or goes gaga over a crush. But while it’s ticklishly humorous when he, Lucas and Thor find a stash of parental sex toys that they guilelessly brandish (Max puts on a black fetish hood, as if it were a Halloween mask), the joke is very clearly on them. By the time the three are trying to cross a busy multilane freeway, frantically dodging cars and shrieking about death, it is no longer funny because, well, it isn’t, mostly because the moviemakers have turned into bullies.
Directed by Gene Stupnitsky, who wrote the script with Lee Eisenberg, “Good Boys” is stuffed with minor and major incidents and exchanges that take place mostly during a single day. Some are harmless; one is criminal. There are drugs, a sex doll, a stranger (Stephen Merchant) and other useless adults. There’s also two young women (Molly Gordon and Midori Francis) who draw the boys into an escalating misadventure involving Ecstasy and some well-staged slapstick. The women are cartoonish stereotypes — sexy, unpredictable, threatening, mysterious, sweet. Mostly they’re previews for what the boys can look forward to when they’re in nastier teen flicks.
A lot of comedy is predicated on the pain of others and laughing at silly and stupid people doing and saying foolish, sometimes dangerous things. You become an accomplice when you laugh at the buffoon slipping on the banana peel, the dim bulb licking icy metal, the jackass leaping into a whirling ceiling fan. Part of the pleasure of the spectacle of idiocy can be its purity, and the rush of simple, liberating anarchic laugher. It can be exciting when the jokes are a challenge, make you squirm, offend you, confront your norms and mores. Are you laughing at the characters or along with them, and what does it matter anyway if the jokes are funny?
In “Good Boys,” the comedy turns on the adventurous mishaps, the fears and tears of 12-year-olds, which — because these are children, played by real children — means it is predicated on your ethical indifference. It banks on your cruelty, which might be interesting if the movie acknowledged its meanness and didn’t smother it in the requisite late-act sentimental blather about friendship, family and so on. Instead, it asks us to laugh and keep unthinkingly laughing, even as its three very appealing child leads who, by virtue of their transparent vulnerability and the unvarnished sincerity of their performances, show you the movie that might have been.
Rated R for profanity and child endangerment. Running time: 1 hour 29 minutes.
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Manohla Dargis has been the co-chief film critic since 2004. She started writing about movies professionally in 1987 while earning her M.A. in cinema studies at New York University, and her work has been anthologized in several books. @ManohlaDargis • Facebook
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