Born to be Mild (Film Review: “Slow Learners”)

Slow Learners provides a delightful teachable moment about how NOT to spend your summer vacation.


SnapShot Plot

After the gluttonous feasting of the holiday season, my current appetite has shifted toward lighter fare and so has my taste in entertainment. At first glance, Slow Learners seems to shape up as one more When Harry Met Sally-esque RomCom about platonic best friends who realize they’re made for each other. And according to the hackneyed trope, their discovery always comes after various comedic misadventures in the Love department. And yes, this is that, but it somehow still manages to delight in surprisingly refreshing ways.

Adam Pally (better known from TV’s The Mindy Project) and Sarah Burns (ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder; and HBO’s Enlightened) are dorky best friends, Jeff and Anne. They are colleagues at a suburban PA high school and the kind of best pals who finish each other’s sentences, share the same quirky and self-deprecating brand of humor, and always tell each other the truth. These two are the kind of nice, decent people who don’t rack up points in the online dating polls. They’re so sincere and mild-mannered that to prospective partners they just come across as idiot deer caught in the headlights. In one of the most hilarious opening scenes ever, Jeff is on a first date with a woman who couldn’t be more bored if he laced her beverage with Propofol. When he asks her to tell him honestly what she finds unattractive about him, it’s bitingly funny and poignant at the same time. So Anne and Jeff make a pact to go wild during the summer break (their goal is to be the kind of people who have sex in public restrooms), and as much as they think they’re in control of their own actions, their dizzying transformations soon have them in a tailspin which could clearly end their friendship as well as threaten their jobs and reputations in the community.



Parting Shot

Cleverly directed by Sheena Joyce and Don Argott, Slow Learners is much more than the sum of it’s genre parts and however much it may be compared to the seminal film, Revenge of the Nerds, this is much more an actor’s movie. The reasons have to do with a clever script, two leads who completely embody their characters, imbuing them with the kind of nuances and delicate touches that make them utterly believable, and an inspired bit of casting in the supporting roles which offer great big laughs when you least expect them. In particular, Reid Scott as Jeff’s devilishly handsome neighbor, Max who can score with women in his sleep. Bobby Moynihan (you know him from SNL) and Gil Ozeri are two nerdy friends whose only extra curricular fun seems to center on the book group they’ve formed with Jeff and – strangely enough – cool guy Max. These two scene stealers are priceless.

But it’s that mixture of hilarity and poignancy that elevates Slow Learners above the pack. Like the moment when Anne – typically wide-eyed with wonder – discovers even she can have a slutty side. It’s cute but also dangerous. She’s really skating on the edge of disaster, and the film and actress don’t pull any punches, which makes her arc so interesting (more than Jeff’s, in fact.)

The takeaway for me is the film’s peculiar blend of zany antics that have the potential to go too far, to ruin relationships and careers, and to ultimately challenge the natural geniality of personality and identity. At least that’s what I found so interesting in the end, after wiping away tears of laughter and relief.


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