Movie Review: Cringe and cringe with Tony Hale, “Eat Wheaties!”

“Cringe-worthy” comedies aren’t my favorite way to get a laugh, and “Eat Wheaties!” has a lot more in common with TV’s “The Office” that I’d typically care for.

But Tony Hale makes an interesting “Variation on a Character Played by Steve Carell,” and there are a few laughs mixed in with a lot of cringes and endless examples of callous cruelty. The ending pulled this one off the fence for me, and it was barely on that fence to start with.

Sid Straw is a socially awkward clod who teeters between faintly-annoying and simply irritating with all who know him.

Colleagues at the tech firm where he’s a cubicle drone barely tolerate his quasi-tactless, social-signals-missed interactions. His secretary (Sarah Goldberg) barely looks up from her phone to note that yes, his mail got delivered to the wrong colleague — again.

His very-pregnant sister in law (Elisha Cuthbert) barely tolerates him, and seems to think it’s cute that “Sid who ruined our wedding” takes her insults with a smile and a shrug. That Sid wants to make a little speech at brother Tom’s birthday earns a brusque “No Sid. No speeches tonight.”

When Tom (David Walton) insists, Sid’s blend of sweet praise and tactless “celebrities who died at 34” list is yet another black mark against a nerd who just “tries too hard.”

Dating only goes so well for so long before he’s dismissed. Always. The one “friend” (Alan Tudyck, a bit subdued here) he has from Penn seems to barely tolerate him.

But the day we meet Sid is a good one. He’s been selected co-chair for the West Coast Penn alumni reunion. That means he’s got to join social media for the first time. That means he can reconnect with his most famous classmate, whose sorority sister he went out with in college.

That classmate? Elizabeth Banks. Her catch-phrase in college, which he remembers and adores to this day? “Eat Wheaties!”

It’s just that when social media naif Sid reaches out to Banks’ “fan page,” and then her management, and posts these long, detailed memories of their shared college experience, her “people” freak out. And her manager is quick to conflate “kind of annoying and clueless” with a “restraining order” level threat. That’s when Sid’s life, lonely and 40something but tolerable, unravels.

Based on a novel by Michael Kun, “Eat Wheaties!” is an essay in the confusing “intimacy” of social media and the blood-in-the-water nature of viral “piling on” that goes on there.

I’ve not read Kun’s book (Heather Locklear was the celeb Sid matriculated with there), but one take-away from the film is that social media has made us meaner. Sid mentions his Banks connection at that same party where “No speech, Sid” was the rule, and prompts another person a bit annoyed with him to offer to fact-check his modest Banks claim with a classmate of hers “at Harvard.”

It’s a pointless bit of cruelty, and the only “correction” to her vocalizing bitch face comes from her date/husband who cracks, “Oh, I’d forgotten you went to Harvard. You hadn’t mentioned it today.”

Sarah Chalke turns out to be perfectly-cast as power-drunk Hollywood management with zero-tolerance for the Sids of this world.

Paul Walter Hauser (“I, Tonya”) is haplessly amusing as the online-degree lawyer Sid retains to regain his life, a guy who might see a little of himself in Sid.

Sid may have “loser” stamped on his forehead. His Mustang may be from The Ugliest Years. But he’s functional and pleasant enough, if seriously tone-deaf.

And yet here are threats from his boss. Here’s another from his bank. Life, thanks to overblown blowback on social media, will never be the same for him because mean people take the mean option at every turn.

Banks? She’s just a beautiful, glamorous face on a Facebook “fan” page, silent and mysterious, never responding to Sid’s friendly casual intimacies, his notes that end with “Eat Wheaties!”

Truth be told, I found this painful to watch, “cringe-worthy” on a whole other level. “Redemption” seems a futile hope. And there simply aren’t enough laughs in those first two acts to lessen the discomfort that this Michael Scott Lite generates and the wincing recognition that “Yeah, that could totally happen.”

But Hale (of “Veep”) and his light touch with the guy make us appreciate why others would be put off, and he lets us see a sweetness that makes Sid’s pain our pain as his harmless dorkiness is met with “the nuclear option” from all sides.

And you know what else keeps you watching? It’s the predictability built into making Elizabeth Banks the elusive classmate all this is swirling around. Her screen persona suggests something is coming, something righteous. Invoking her name makes you hope this meanness will not stand. Just don’t run it by her agent first.

MPA Rating: unrated, adult situations

Cast: Tony Hale, Sarah Chalke, Paul Walter Hauser, Elisha Cuthbert, David Walton, Danielle Brooks and Alan Tudyck.

Credits: Scripted and directed by Scott Abramovich, based on the novel by Michael Kun. A Phillm release.

Running time: 1:28

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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