One barely expects to find jokes referencing taboo topics like pedophilia, threesomes, and the use of Nair as an ass-grooming agent in an R-rated, John Hughes-inspired teen comedy, so the fact that they’ve turned up in a PG-13 version produced by Nickelodeon is shocking. And these gags are only the tip of the iceberg for “Fun Size” writer Max Werner (a long way from his usual home, Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report”), who takes a conventional, “Adventures in Babysitting”-style premise in an array of weird directions.
But just because “Fun Size” is surprisingly envelope-pushing for its MPAA rating and target audience doesn’t mean that it’s any good. In fact, Werner and director Josh Schwartz are so preoccupied with appearing unorthodox that they completely forget about the essentials of storytelling. Given Schwartz’s most notable prior credits include The CW’s “Gossip Girl” and “Hart of Dixie,” a mindlessly episodic structure was to be expected, but that the film is utterly lacking in spunky characters and dramatic tension is an unforgivable offense. “Fun Size” gives the viewer nothing to invest in — it simply occupies the screen and wastes time.
The familiar set-up: 17-year-old Wren (Victoria Justice) must serve as trick-or-treating chaperone for her little brother Albert (Jackson Nicoll), who behaves erratically and doesn’t speak, when Mom (Chelsea Handler) decides to attend a Halloween party with her boyfriend. Albert goes M.I.A. the second that Wren takes her eyes off him, triggering a crosstown search that prevents her from attending hunky crush Aaron Riley’s (Thomas McDonnell) Halloween party. But never fear: Wren runs into the boy that she is truly meant to be with, debate-team nerd Roosevelt (Thomas Mann), and he aids in the quest to find Albert.
Wren’s search for her brother remains conventional throughout, but secondary story-threads allow writer Werner to go wild. After Albert escapes his sister’s guardianship, he makes the acquaintance of a convenience store worker who’s at least 25 years old (Thomas Middleditch) and tags along for the man’s attempt to win his ex-girlfriend back. Needless to say, their unlikely friendship is at least mildly creepy, a fact that the movie acknowledges but doesn’t derive much humor from. Albert is then kidnapped by the psychopathic new boyfriend (Johnny Knoxville) of the ex-girlfriend — again, hardly what one would expect to see in a Nickelodeon project made for 12-to-15-year-old girls. Meanwhile, at the Halloween party, Mom wanders into the bedroom of the host’s elderly parents, who first appear to be interested in a sexual hookup but end up counseling her over her husband’s relatively recent death. “Fun Size” later confoundingly shifts tones on a dime so that the whole family can mourn his loss.
A written list of the story’s eccentricities makes the experience sound more interesting than it is; in practice, writer Werner and director Schwartz simply treat said eccentricities as story-points to trudge through rather than opportunities for comedy (or, in the case of the family mourning, something authentically heartfelt). The filmmakers completely forgo the kind of character development necessary to give these frequently off-the-wall situations any level of poignancy. Wren is just your average high school senior, Albert is just an odd kid who doesn’t speak, Knoxville’s character is just a nutcase; they’re all purely one-dimensional archetypes. Thus, Werner and Schwartz never instill in the viewer the critical illusion that any piece of the story could actually happen. The characters simply feel like pawns being moved in order to fulfill the bare minimum requirements of a feature, not people capable of engaging the audience’s emotions. This is a real shame when one considers the numerous creative subplots that Werner’s script contains.
“Fun Size” is presumably 19-year-old Victoria Justice’s attempt to transition from her Nickelodeon roots to full-time feature acting, but her performance suggests little more than that she has a pretty face. Of course, Justice was not given much to work with, so there could very well be untapped potential beneath the surface. On the bright side, the only direction that the young actress can go now is up, and “Fun Size” should serve as a valuable lesson for her to pick quality projects going forward. If only viewers, too, could claim to have learned something worthwhile from the film.