Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates is one of those movies with a title that tells you just about all you need to know about its plot. Mike and Dave need dates to their sister’s wedding. It’s their father’s ultimatum. You see, these rowdy brothers have made it a habit of bringing their hard-partying frat-boy lifestyle to family gatherings, which have resulted in property damage, personal injury, and great embarrassment. Somehow this is pinned on their drive to impress the ladies, so mandatory dates it is. The act of finding two women to take an all-expenses-paid trip to a destination wedding at a Hawaiian resort has a cracked reality show vibe as Mike and Dave throw an ad up on Craigslist and watch the applications roll in as it goes viral. Played by the buff Zac Efron and the doughier Adam Devine, the guys are totally self-centered and incredibly privileged. The movie’s smartest move is to find them perfect foils in a pair of sloppy, silly con women (Anna Kendrick and Aubrey Plaza) who decide to play classy and bilk themselves a vacation.
The result is a reasonably diverting gender flip on the Wedding Crashers idea, with Kendrick and Plaza running away with the entire film out from under its ostensible stars. So what if the movie’s named after and rooting for Mike and Dave? This should be Alice and Tatiana’s story. They’re freshly fired waitresses who rouse themselves from a snack food and daytime television enabled stupor to wash up, put on nice dresses, and pretend to be the sort of girls the guys would love to show off to their wealthy family. They force a Meet Cute and, bada-bing bada-boom, they’re off to Hawaii. It’s not exactly a sophisticated con they’re running. One claims to be a schoolteacher (“I’m always noticing spellings…” she coos) who loves her students despite, “how dumb they are,” while the other says she manages a hedge fund, describing her daily office life as a matter of checking on the hedging. The appeal of the movie rests entirely on their rowdy free-spiritedness, and in the performances of Kendrick and Plaza. Refreshingly casual and candid, they drip with sarcasm and filthy improvisational patter.
For a stretch in the middle – as the family (including sister Sugar Lyn Beard and father Stephen Root) are convinced they like these fun-loving frauds while the boys’ emotional stability is slowly undermined – there’s enjoyment to be had in the rowdy vulgarity. Kendrick and Plaza are funny as their characters are unable to hold onto their “good girl” facades because it’s too much fun just being themselves, doing ATV tricks, slamming back shots, ordering room service, and slipping extra bills in a masseuse's pocket to make sure the bride-to-be has an extra special session. But too often the script by Neighbors’ Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O’Brien falls back on the usual tricks of the subgenre: drug trips, surprise nudity, long punchline roulettes in which the cast stands around tossing out improvised insults. And as its plot gears start grinding to a treacly conclusion it asks us to care about the interminably dopey guys as well. Efron earns some sympathy, showing a capacity for mellowing and meeting his responsibilities halfway. But Devine can’t come down from the self-centered stubbornness, which drives him to entitled fits. The movie’s supposed to end with people learning lessons, but it’s more about forgetting than forgiving.
This isn’t an entirely successful movie. The setup is great, but deserves more of a farcical verve to stir things up. The side characters (a good cast of cable-TV character actors, including Veep’s Sam Richardson, Breaking Bad’s Lavell Crawford, and Silicon Valley’s Alice Wetterlund and Kumail Nanjiani) stay rather one-note. The mishaps never really cascade or escalate in the best door-slamming misunderstandings tradition, because consequences are dropped to get to the next sequence. A face run over in a freak accident has bruising for a jokey reveal, then quickly fades. An encounter in a steam room between a game Plaza and a seductive cousin-of-the-bride is used for shock value, but has no satisfying payoff. The movie excuses its characters’ behaviors when convenient, or holds it over their heads’ when needed. It’s all at the whims of the predictable plot beats instead of snowballing organically, and thus can’t quite make the turns from R-rated frankness to sweet sentimentality it tries. The balance of sweetness and sourness is off. But even though the thing doesn’t cohere as well as it should, director Jake Szymanski keeps the pace moving, the tone relaxed, and the jokes just above the insult-to-intelligence line. Plus, he knows how to step back and allow Kendrick and Plaza to run circles around Efron and Devine. As a lazy summer distraction, that might be good enough.