In the annals of aspirational one-crazy-night teen comedies, “Fun Size” is a minor, fitfully fun entry, kind of like those bite-bized candy bars. On the flip side of the coin, it’s a curiously uncomfortable mishmash that teens should not take responsible babysitting tips from. With it bearing the Nickelodeon brand, it’s hard to tell if “Fun Size” started as a raunchy R-rated teen comedy that was then neutered to earn a tamer PG-13 or if the filmmakers were aiming for a one-size-fits-all in the first place. The result is the directorial feature debut of TV producer Josh Schwartz (“The O.C.,” “Chuck,” and “Gossip Girl”), working from a script by Max Werner (“The Colbert Report”), and they have obviously watched enough movies by John Hughes.
Making her major feature debut, Disney Channel darling Victoria Justice (whom you’ll know if you’re a 13-year-old girl and get giddy over “Zoey 101″ and “Victorious”) is fetching and breaks the stereotype in playing the smart, geeky and very pretty Wren. It’s Halloween night in Cleveland, and this NYU-bound high school senior just wants to go to the party of Jake Ryan-level class stud Aaron Riley (Thomas McDonell) with her popularity-obsessed best friend April (Jane Levy of TV’s “Suburgatory”). Wren wants to dress up as Ruth Bader Ginsburg but listens to Pink Floyd, so she goes as Dorothy Gale. After she’s all ready for her big night out on the town, her widowed, single mother Joy (Chelsea Handler) drops a bomb on her: she’s going to a Halloween party with her hunky, employed 26-year-old boyfriend, so Wren will have to take her pudgy 8-year-old brother Albert (Jackson Nicoll) trick-or-treating. Two things about Albert: he’s weirdly prankish, spending his time cutting up his sister’s sweaters, and hasn’t talked for a year since their father died. Natch, her change of plans just deteriorates from there when Albert wanders off and, with the help of her nerdy friend Roosevelt (Thomas Mann) and his equally nerdy pal (Osric Chau), Wren and April go on a wild night to find him. You know comic hijinks will ensue. Rest assured, nobody gets a hangover, but there is a distraction for the cops involving streaking and over-the-shirt groping played for laughs.
Schwartz keeps a snappy pace going, flitting between Wren, Albert, and Joy, and this episodic night of errors has its diverting moments. Even if a giant fast-food pirate chicken statue falling on top of Roosevelt’s car and proceeding to hump it is only worth a vague smirk, funnier gags involve the car stereo coming off and Josh Groban’s “Raise Me Up” blaring, as well as April’s use of Nair. A slightly annoying, wrongheaded, questionably creepy plot thread involves the antics with Albert, though well-played by Nicoll who can deliver a laugh without speaking and doesn’t just come off like a menacing terror. Finding his way to the mini-mart for a slushee, the Spider-Man-dressed Albert makes friends with the lovelorn, socially awkward clerk Fuzzy (a goofily off-kilter Thomas Middleditch) and goes off on a mission with the college-aged guy. From there, Albert keeps getting picked up by strangers, all the way until he’s held hostage by a borderline-psychotic bodybuilder dressed as Dog the Bounty Hunter (Johnny Knoxville).
Roosevelt secretly pines after Wren, yes, but Kerri Kenney and Ana Gasteyer as Roosevelt’s bohemian moms with an asthmatic cat are an amusingly oddball touch. At the sight of two mothers, Wren quick-wittedly goes, “I thought he was just talking like Lil Wayne!” Also, Handler doesn’t really get to cut loose like on her funny TV show, but actually gives an honest-to-God performance as a woman who misses her late husband and tries living out her youth. In the last 10 minutes, there’s a jarring tonal shift, wherein Wren and Albert visit their father’s headstone. It could’ve been a potentially schmaltzy about-face from all the farcical shenanigans, but it’s nicely handled and arguably touching.
With Justice an appealing screen presence and the tart-tongued Levy stealing plenty of laughs, “Fun Size” certainly has its pleasures. But if we’re making teen-movie comparisons that aren’t Hughes-ian, it’s more like 2000’s “Snow Day” and 2004’s “Sleepover,” which were silly and harmless kid romps. Written with quite a bit more wit and charm than “Project X,” this should fill its nicheâ€”even though it’s not always clear whom it was made forâ€”and make an acceptable “Halloween Adventures in Babysitting” for pre-high schoolers.
86 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C +