In ‘Blockers,’ John Cena and Ike Barinholtz play fathers learning to let go
At first glance, the premise of “Blockers” appears excessively old-fashioned, even reactionary: A hapless trio of parents discover their teenage daughters have made a pact to lose their virginity on prom night and, horrified, band together in a hare-brained scheme to — well, let’s just say the movie poster includes a bird sometimes known as a rooster strutting to the left of the title, imploring on-lookers to compound word and image.
So credit “Blockers” writer-director Kay Cannon (who scripted 2012’s “Pitch Perfect”) with turning the so-called “prom-com” (popularized in the ’90s by “American Pie”) on its head. The film, out Friday, sidesteps the subgenre’s often misogynistic overtones to instead arrive as a sex-positive empowerment anthem for young women, damning of double standards in such a forthright — not to mention funny — manner as to feel perfectly timed to our current cultural moment.
Presenting punchlines with a progressive outlook, as opposed to reinforcing the kinds of gender stereotypes traditionally prevalent in sex comedies, was important to John Cena and Ike Barinholtz, whose characters form two-thirds of the aforementioned Team Buzzkill with “This Is 40” actress Leslie Mann.
Speaking by phone, both actors say their characters — overprotective meathead Mitchell and divorcee Hunter — had individualized perceptions of masculinity that informed the film’s take on gender roles.
To play Mitchell, Cena — a West Newbury-bred wrestler-turned-actor — skewered his own hyper-masculine image, portraying the super-dad as a sensitive man-mountain, unaware of his towering size as he veers between tearful emotionality and scowling indignation.
“The movie is much more about heart than it is physical stature,” explains Cena, who said he spoke at length with the director before taking the role. “I think [Cannon] really had an idea of what she wanted out of this father figure and wanted to make sure there was a genuine human being behind my frame.”
In a soon-to-be-infamous scene, Mitchell aids the other parents in infiltrating a college party by taking on a hard-partying teen in a rather unseemly contest involving a beer-filled funnel and his naked backside. Uproarious on its face, the scene is also played as a touching expression of how far Mitchell will go to protect his child.
“What I’m most proud of walking away from this movie is showing that I am a human being, that there is a beating heart under all this,” said the actor. “It was pretty cool to be able to be a vulnerable father trying to do anything for his daughter.”
Playing the part required Cena to interrogate his own image; he uses “the blank canvas” of movies to show more sides of himself than he might in World Wrestling Entertainment, where he spent more than a decade as the organization’s franchise player, building a character and a brand.
“Everyone has their own definition of what makes them a strong individual,” explains Cena, 40.
“I’ve come to the realization that being able to be comfortable in your own skin, comfortable with your emotions — that’s my definition of being tough.”
For Barinholtz, whose Hunter craves a connection with his estranged daughter, it was similarly crucial to dispense with outdated models of fatherhood.
“Both Hunter and Mitchell are very deeply flawed men, and there’s a little bit of, if not toxic masculinity in both of them, at least typical male [expletive],” says the onetime Boston University student, 41. “[The former] is the no-good louse, and the [latter] is disappointed he didn’t have a boy. . . . To see the father who doesn’t know how to relate to a daughter embracing who she is and who can’t reconcile with the fact that she is a grown woman — that was important.”
In “Blockers,” Hunter’s relationship with his daughter is colored by her journey toward embracing queerness. “That relationship took it from something we’ve seen before and made it really special,” recalls Barinholtz. “I was surprised at how emotional it was — I was sobbing, because I’m a sap. I’ll just be so proud if one of my children ever comes out to me.”
Barinholtz missed the film’s world premiere at the South By Southwest Film Festival last month in order to be with his heavily pregnant wife. But he’s unsurprised by strong word-of-mouth the film got out of Austin, given its zeitgeist-harnessing angle.
“After Trump got elected, I said to [Cannon], we have to make this movie for our daughters,” says Barinholtz. “When we were making it, it did feel different, and as the fall and winter of last year happened, with the #MeToo movement growing, the story seemed to correspond.”
Both Cena and Barinholtz hail “Blockers” as a necessary step forward for the comedy genre but stress other Hollywood films must follow its example — most critically by hiring non-male writers and directors, like Cannon.
“She was spectacular,” says Cena, praising Cannon’s vision. “I ended up calling her coach because she gave me so much direction and so much feedback.”
Barinholtz, who’s been friends with Cannon for years, says he was the first actor to sign up. “Anyone showing us a whole different experience we wouldn’t be privy to . . . makes our business stronger and our art more inclusive,” he says. “[Improving representation] is going to open up an entire new world of possibilities for movies, that will connect with people who look like the people who made it, but also people who don’t look like the people who made it and had no idea what their American experience was like. I say bring it on.”