It’s possible to imagine a version of The Binge that would be funny. It would likely be around five minutes, and if it might not make it all the way to Saturday Night Live, a fruitful session of improvised sketch comedy could certainly spring from its premise: a Purge-inspired future where citizens are permitted an annual single-day exemption from an otherwise complete prohibition on all drugs and alcohol. Actually spending 98 minutes inside this world, however, is about as fun as it looks to the sweaty, embarrassed characters.
That said, The Binge isn’t the first film to make a bizarre assumption about the viability of the Purge series as feature-length riffing material. And there are flickers of cleverness visible in the approach concocted by writer Jordan VanDina and director Jeremy Garelick. The filmmakers use spoofy world-building (narrated with faux gravity by a Morgan Freeman imitator) to frame a 24-hour high school comedy, where Griffin (Skyler Gisondo); his best friend, Hags, (Dexter Darden); and class outcast Andrew (Eduardo Franco) run around town in search of the ultimate party and/or a life-changing hook-up. The ridiculous specifics of this one-time substance-fueled revelry complement a feeling common in teen movies, as well as genuine teenage life: It all comes down to this one crazy night that could change everything.
The movie also has fun briefly supposing that the teenagers who so eagerly anticipate the Binge have little to no experience with any of the substances in question. (Supposedly, most people participate once and are scared off from trying it again, just one of the movie’s many conceits that require a pyramid-scheme level of buy-in.) This leads to much earnest, pre-binge whispering about what various drugs actually do, an amusing caricature of ill-informed conversations teenagers have conducted for generations. With all of the rumors floating around, Griffin isn’t sure he wants to take part; he’s more concerned about asking his longtime friend/crush Lena (Grace Van Dien) to prom. Griffin must tread especially carefully because Lena’s dad is the severe Principal Carlson—played, presumably as a favor to his Break-Up screenwriter Garelick, by Vince Vaughn.
Vaughn doesn’t have the most important role in The Binge, but as its most famous face, he’s the one who most clearly sacrifices himself to the movie’s quick descent into contemporary comedy-hack hell. From his first scene, Vaughn gamely tears into whatever scraps of character meat are tossed to him, and the filmmakers keep ripping them out of his teeth. Initially, Carlson is a weird variation on both the surly later-period Vaughn persona and a typical uptight administrator, which means he issues dire law-and-order warnings about the dangers of the Binge that manage to crudely insult and harass students and colleagues alike. Then he’s briefly a doting, dorky dad to Lena who panics when he realizes she’s snuck out to join the party. This shifts him into a loose-cannon vigilante willing to issue beatings and stripteases alike to find his daughter, until he makes another, climactic switch to old school (and Old School) Vaughn. This might have been a crowd-pleasing surprise if not for the movie’s constant insistence on suddenly jerking the steering wheel every few minutes in search of non sequiturs and shock laughs.
The Binge manages a few laughs, largely from Franco as its long-haired attempt at conjuring that McLovin magic. (Like Christopher Mintz-Plasse, he’s funnier because he looks like a real, awkward teenager, not a twentysomething in disguise.) But when Garelick and VanDina try to construct a passable joke instead of screamed nonsense, they grind down their own material. One early bit of dialogue sets up an elaborate drug-trip musical number, which eventually plays out at a time-killing length and is merrily reprised over the credits. The song itself is also not especially funny, but at least the sequence looks like something from a real movie. Elsewhere, locations as exotic as “interior of bar” and “empty field” appear green-screened.
Even the occasional funny line grows wearying, because nothing in this movie happens for any real reason. The details that labor to appear random, the big slapstick plot turns, and the predetermined character arcs are all equally meaningless, unchecked byproducts of filmmakers emptying their joke files with Superbad playing on a loop in the background. Superbad wasn’t the first teen comedy to pair a meek nerd with a blustery loudmouth as unlikely besties, and successful variations are certainly possible. (See last year’s Booksmart, which includes two of this movie’s leads in its supporting cast.) But movies like Superbad and Booksmart make it harder to excuse rhythmless, joyless banter between movie teenagers who don’t look a day under 25—or female characters who spend most of the movie waiting for the charisma-free boys to show up, so they can then watch their antics from the crowd.
Why a crowd? Because The Binge also fancies itself an underdog sports movie in the style of Beerfest, though it doesn’t bother telling anyone this until the last 15 minutes. Teens participating in a coke-snorting contest is the kind of spectacle best left abstracted on an improv stage, but it’s nonetheless an appropriate turn for a movie that sees controlled substances solely as the fuel for poorly staged hijinks. Grain alcohol, PCP, and facefuls of cocaine blur into a wall of fratty noise. It’s depressing but maybe it will coin a new comedy maxim: Cocaine is funny; pretending that it’s impossible to overdose on cocaine is stupid.