“Social Animals” would like to be considered a comedy, but it can feel like a whine of nostalgia. The vanishing pleasures of Polaroids and video stores; the smarting efficiency of hot-wax defuzzing over newfangled laser treatments; the carefree thrill of freeloading over regular rent payments — these are what preoccupy the quirky slackers who knock about its Austin, Tex., locations.
At their hub is Zoe (Noël Wells), pushing 30 and brightly shouldering the dual burden of a dying business and imminent eviction. Her House of Wax, where she performs stem-to-stern Brazilians — their yelping recipients inelegantly captured via “Call the Midwife”-style camera angles — is threatened by a new laser-treatment salon down the road. At the same time, the land rent for the trailer where she lives is overdue. Both crises are placed on hold while she diverts herself by taking keepsake Polaroids of her parade of one-night stands.
As the writer and director, Theresa Bennett, sympathizes with her hapless heroine, the script surrounds her with equally directionless, intimacy-challenged souls. There’s a best friend (the excellent Carly Chaikin) whose raunchiest lingerie can’t distract her conservative fiancé from a recording of the 2000 Republican Convention. And there’s a possible love interest in Paul (Josh Radnor), a fellow sad sack whose beloved video emporium is on the ropes and whose brittle, bossy wife (Aya Cash) would rather hire a male prostitute than conjugally indulge her husband. No wonder their youngest child believes himself a dog: his father is regularly treated like one.
Depending on your tolerance for adults stalled in adolescence, “Social Animals” (not to be confused with Jonathan Ignatius Green’s identically named documentary) is mildly entertaining and at times maddeningly cutesy. Wearing little-girl dresses and short-shorts, Ms. Wells, who’s now 31, appears barely old enough to legally purchase alcohol. For me, at least, this gives her scenes with Mr. Radnor — whose rumpled, nonthreatening amiability served him well as a high-school drama coach in the recently canceled television show “Rise” — a distracting awkwardness.
Even so, the lack of chemistry between the two leads is less damaging than Ms. Bennett’s inability to commit to a tone. When you define characters almost exclusively by their sexual frustrations and dysfunctions (and literally introduce them with cute line drawings illustrating their preferred bonking positions), you can’t waver between empathy and cruelty. And absent the requisite hilarity, this single-issue tactic quickly becomes tedious, leaving you with a limp sex comedy that feels as cinematically played out as the dusty charm of Austin itself.
Rated R for denuded privates and fellated veggies. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.