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Duff, The

Lionsgate Home Entertainment // PG-13 // June 9, 2015
List Price: $39.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted June 17, 2015 | E-mail the Author
With at least one director, a screenwriter, producers, actors, and sometimes studio executives to deal with, movies are easy targets for "too many cooks in the kitchen" syndrome, yet even then, a film's disjointed tone is usually the result of test screening notes demanding a happier ending or a producer taking the reins -- a noticeable tug-of-war between two perspectives. The DUFF, on the other hand, seems to have six or seven ideas the filmmakers want to convey at any given moment, often in a single scene, sometimes in a single sentence. Somewhere in the film's chaotic jumble of emotional and comedic beats is a movie I kind of admired, but there are just so many incongruous elements working against each other at a given moment that the good stuff nearly drowns. Much like its heroine, The DUFF seems to be trying to figure out what it wants to be and how to present that to the world, which is a good story for a teen comedy, but not nearly as compelling as a viewing experience.

Mae Whitman plays Bianca, an awkward girl who uses her minimal social energy on her two closest friends, Jess (Skyler Samuels) and Casey (Bianca A. Santos). Bianca likes Toby Tucker (Nick Eversman), a blonde, wavy-haired guitar player who she often passes in the hallway, but she's satisfied by the companionship of her pals until her neighbor Wes (Robbie Amell) off-handedly comments that she's the "DUFF": Designated Ugly Fat Friend. Bianca isn't fat or ugly, but the term isn't literal -- it refers to whoever in a core group of friends is the "approachable" one, through whom people get information about the stars of each group. Bianca responds to this information by ditching Jess and Casey and trying to figure out how to make it on her own. Apologetic, Wes agrees to help Bianca figure out how to talk to Toby in exchange for Bianca's help with his science grades.

In clearly stating the fact that the DUFF doesn't have to actually be ugly or fat, the filmmakers hope to avoid comparisons to She's All That and the "glasses and ponytail" school of secret beauty. To that end, the movie does a reasonably good job: when Bianca puts on a sexy dress, she observes in voice-over that it isn't a revelation, just her in a dress. It's also genuinely pleasing that Jess and Casey are legitimately Bianca's friends; when Bianca blows up, they give her space even though it hurts and get her back when she needs it. Wes' confidence-boosting crash course is also pretty great: he not only tells Bianca to think less about what she looks like and more about how she feels, but also uses exercises that might actually build her confidence, like telling her to talk to strangers at the mall until she gets somebody's phone number. There aren't any elaborate set-ups or complicated routines; instead, Wes shows her how to be more outgoing, and the payoff for this (actually near the middle of the movie) is satisfying in a low-key way.

At the same time, The DUFF is pitched in some sort of semi-cartoon universe that has no anchor point for how silly or unrealistic things are gonna get. It's hard to tell if the social media aspects of the movie came from Kody Keplinger's source novel or screenwriter Josh A. Cagan, but the film displays a certain obsession with the concept of Twitter and facebook without appearing to understand it at all. Kids turn to one another and say "Viral!" before sending a viral video around, which the movie conveys using text message and "new email" sound effects, as if people actually have to send a video to one another. The scene where Bianca fights with Jess and Casey is an excruciating back-and-forth of the girls unfriending and unfollowing each other on social media, which might've been funny if director Ari Sandel knew how to play the scene in a manner that doesn't seem oblivious and obnoxious. Bianca is also hounded by Madison (Bella Thorne), Wes' on-again, off-again queen bee girlfriend, and although many mean girls are motivated by their own cruelty, Thorne has no actual character to play. A scene where she comes face-to-face with Bianca and Bianca demands to know what she needs to do to get Madison off her back only underlines the character's lack of motivation other than being a bad person.

At the center of the movie is the relationship between Bianca and Wes, which is simultaneously the obvious route for a movie like this to go in, yet one that is satisfying thanks to the chemistry of its leads. When Sandel backs off a little bet and lets Whitman and Amell's charm take over, the movie is genuinely sweet, especially in a scene where the pair visit Bianca's quiet place (a later moment in this same location is also a perfect moment rooted in character, even if Wes' obliviousness to why the moment is meaningful is a little hard to buy). On the other hand, their bond brings out some of the movie's most uncomfortably edgy comedy. Call me a prude, but I can't remember the last time I saw a PG-13 movie with so much sexually charged dialogue and humor. Generally, getting it on is left to R-rated comedies like American Pie, but The DUFF is preoccupied with it as a source of discussion and humor, from tongues coming out of assholes to a sequence where Bianca actually imagines an internet porn video starring herself and Wes. Even more awkward is the way these gags are sandwiched between ones actually aimed at making parents laugh, such as references to Spinal Tap and the cosmic importance of high school. There's a nice movie about accepting yourself somewhere in The DUFF. Good luck finding it.

The Blu-ray
The DUFF arrives in an eco-friendly two-disc Viva Elite Blu-ray case, which houses the Blu-ray DVD copy discs, as well as an insert with the UltraViolet Digital Copy redemption code. The artwork is pretty standard stuff: four of the movie's characters (whether or not Ken Jeong can really be called a main character is worthy of serious debate) in a digital hallway lined with lockers. The original theatrical poster had them standing in a single line with only one wall of lockers; the Blu-ray art somewhat awkwardly reformats the image as a two-walled hallway (scale seems less than convincing). The entire package comes in a matte cardboard slipcover with the same artwork.

The Video and Audio
The DUFF was shot on the Arri Alexa XT, and the resulting 2.39:1 1080p AVC presentation has the look of many digital productions: sharp, clean, and a little lacking in personality, with a few defects that are inherent to the photography rather than the Blu-ray. The film looks the iffiest at the homecoming dance at the end of the film, which is bathed in bright, purple lights that look a touch blocky and smeary. Most of the film, on the other hand, has fairly crisp detail and appears otherwise unaltered from its original color palette. A DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack has very little to struggle with; even crowd scenes like the dance are mysteriously free of much ambiance or immersion. Dialogue and music sound bright and clear, other than that, there's not much to say. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and English and Spanish subtitles are also included.

The Extras
A smattering of decidedly promotional extras are included. "The DUFF Hits the Red Carpet" (3:30) is up first and among the worst offenders: it's a collection of red carpet interviews where the actors literally tell the viewer how much they think people are going to enjoy the film (which they presumably just watched) and why, complete with film clips -- actually, film clips are included in almost every supplement on the disc. The one exception is next, an Extended Gag Reel (3:15), which is bizarre in that it cuts to the actual laugh in a number of instances, depriving the viewer of the actual funny moment, and also contains outtakes from the behind-the-scenes interviews. "Bringing the Book to Life" (2:15) is one of the few clips that could actually be considered informative, in that author Kody Keplinger talks a little about her inspiration from the book and what it was like seeing her novel realized by the cast and crew. "Teen Comedies and The DUFF" (2:04) is a misguided feature in which everyone talks about their favorite teen comedies, and director Ari Sandel uses the unfortunate term "zeitgeisty" instead of, you know, actually saying he thought the script was funny or charming or sweet or something. "I Am The DUFF" (2:42) is the core making-of with the usual surface-scratching interviews about the story and characters. It is followed by "The DUFF Files" (7:21), the last extra on the disc, which is a series of 5 mini-featurettes about specific characters.

Trailers for Insurgent, Spare Parts, The Hunger Games - Mockingjay: Part 1, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and What If play before the main menu. No trailer for The DUFF is included. All of the extras are presented in HD.

With a rewrite of the screenplay and a better director, The DUFF could be a teen comedy classic. Instead, it feels like a hodgepodge of ideas waiting for someone to narrow them down into a coherent motion picture. Rent it.

Please check out my other DVDTalk DVD, Blu-ray and theatrical reviews and/or follow me on Twitter.
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