As far as high school comedies go, there’s little left to infuse the genre with that hasn’t previously been done. We’ve seen takes on cliques and the stressful nature of teenage social life several times over, most recently in “21 Jump Street,” a film that, by taking the classic teenage drama and combining it with buddy-cop action, made it fresh enough that the familiar hallways, classrooms, and bedrooms are a tad easier to stomach. “The DUFF” is the latest entry to a list that includes “The Breakfast Club” and “Clueless.” While it does little to separate itself from its thematic predecessors, “The DUFF” boasts moments of greatness to the point that I’m disappointed it wasn’t funnier.
A group of three friends, Casey, Jess, and Bianca, are invited to a party by Madison, a beauty queen obsessed with fame and glamor; essentially, she’s a less amusing Regina George. That night, Bianca has a conversation with Wesley, a dumb jock who lives next door to her. He tells her that she is a “DUFF,” or “Designated Ugly Fat Friend.” He explains that she acts as the “gateway” between interested men and her hotter, more popular friends. Understandingly offended, she breaks off her friendship with Jess and Casey and enlists Wesley’s help to improve her image and make her more appealing to Toby, the boy of her dreams.
The plot is not a complex one, nor is it anything revolutionary. Within fifteen minutes one knows exactly where the movie is going, and it’s not unexplored territory. At times I found myself wishing they would get from one plot point to the other, fully aware of what the outcome of any given scene would be. Like most comedies, however, it’s more so about the journey than the destination.
The movie succeeds due in large part to its cast. Mae Whitman, who I first discovered as George Michael’s girlfriend Ann on “Arrested Development,” is terrific as the main character, though I always felt she was dialed back a bit, like they defanged her. As Bianca, she is the typically droll, sarcastic high school girl, and I kept wishing for some additional cynicism, more potent venom. Her counterpart and frequent scene partner, Robbie Ammel, is also good, and it is because of the chemistry between these two actors that the film works. He lends weight to what is otherwise a stereotype, and he works well in contrast with Whitman. The rest of the actors are given little to work with. Madison is the stereotypical pretty girl; Ken Jeong is the wise teacher there to give the protagonist a pep talk now and then. As Bianca’s mother, Allison Janney is criminally underused and underwritten. She’s demonstrated her comedic chops many times before, but here she’s given few scenes of any consequence.
“The DUFF” is simply a movie that fails to offer anything new. There are moments of satire, such as Bianca and her friends severing ties between them via social media “de-friending,” that hint at a level of depth and intelligence, but it is only a brief glimpse as the film closes shut again and resorts to easy laughs. There are moments of genuine hilarity: Bianca’s date with Toby and her trip with Wesley to Victoria’s Secret both offer moments for the actors to have some fun, but in the end “The DUFF” proves to be too caught up on aping the high school movies of old to blaze its own path.
The movie becomes encased in a mold it has no interest in breaking. The pieces are here for something truly memorable, but the result is too clichéd, too familiar, and simply not funny enough to justify its shortcomings. This was not a bad movie, and I laughed throughout the whole thing. But I’d rather see “Mean Girls” for free than pay to see “The DUFF.”
Review by Lucas Dispoto