There is a sense of “been there, seen that” to “The DUFF” (wide release), a high school comedy that wants to recall the John Hughes movies of the ‘80s (“Sixteen Candles,” “The Breakfast Club”) but comes up decidedly short by comparison.
The title acronym — referring to a “Designated Ugly Fat Friend” — is applied to Bianca (Mae Whitman), a frumpy girl who reacts against serving as a tool to her prettier pals and enlists her hunky next-door neighbor (Robbie Amell) to help her shed her DUFFness and win the heart of the boy on whom she has long had a crush.
The script adds a typical mean girl to the mix, as well as references to social media to make it seem up-to-date.
But the picture is amazingly old-fashioned at heart, ending up with a makeover of Bianca that clashes with the moral that one should be oneself. And one gets no points whatsoever for predicting which young man she is going to wind up with — a foregone conclusion ten minutes in.
Despite ingratiating leads, “The DUFF” is just a pale imitation of far better high school comedies.
“The Last 5 Years”
Anna Kendrick proved she could sing in “Into the Woods,” and she does so again in “The Last 5 Years” (Angelika), an adaptation of a two-person off-Broadway musical that has proved very popular on the regional circuit.
She co-stars with Jeremy Jordan in the tale that follows a half-decade romance and marriage from initial meeting to final breakup.
But the story is told in alternating songs from the man and the woman, with only scraps of spoken dialogue to interrupt them. And to complicate matters further, his songs go chronologically, while hers are arranged in reverse order, so that while she begins with the breakup and continues to first meeting, his perspective takes the opposite trajectory. They meet for a duet only in the middle.
This sort of artificial construction can work nicely on stage, but on the screen it feels precious. And the music, while pleasant enough, is not all that memorable.
Despite the efforts of Kendrick and Jordan, “The Last 5 Years” winds up being too synthetic to have much emotional impact.
“McFarland, USA” (wide release) is a fact-based inspirational sports movie that follows formula pretty strictly but is fairly effective nonetheless.
Kevin Costner plays a high school football coach from Idaho who is forced to take a job in a central California town after he is fired for manhandling a player. He finds that some members of his squad, mostly the sons of Hispanic farm workers, are exceptionally fast runners, and so forms a campus cross country team.
The initial going is tough, especially since rival teams from far richer schools taunt the boys and their coach. But despite the difficulties — which include schedule adjustments to accommodate the students’ work in the fields — the team trains rigorously and winds up at the state championship meet.
The picture can get awfully heavy-handed, especially when commenting upon the townspeople’s patriotism when they lustily join in singing the national anthem despite the condescension with which they are often treated.
But it does provide an adrenaline rush during the race sequences, and ends up a bit winded but still more sure-footed than most films of this type.
“Hot Tub Time Machine 2”
The original movie in the series was repulsively raunchy, but “Hot Tub Time Machine 2” (wide release) is even worse.
In this sequel, two members from the original’s quartet of slob time-travelers (Craig Robinson and Clark Duke) spirit a third (the utterly obnoxious Rob Corddry) to 2025 in order to save him from dying of a gunshot wound. (The fourth — the character played by John Cusack — has disappeared because the actor declined to participate. Adam Scott joins the crew as his son.)
But the lamebrain plot is merely a skeleton on which to hang a stream of vulgar gags about sex, drugs and rock-and-roll.
Misogynistic, homophobic, coarse and dumb, this wretched tribute to sheer tastelessness is bound to be one of the year’s worst pictures.