Friday, August 2, 2013

Review: The To Do List

Cheeky raucous sex romp comedies that pay homage to the past by brutally tearing them apart have been a staple of American cinema for the better part of the last four decades.  When they work, they have the dual effect of making you feel nostalgic and embarrassed by the dated pop culture phenomena that defined your hormonally driven past.  When they don’t work, the scenes feel like one of those forced conversation about things that no one really wants to talk about.  While I had low expectations for The To DoList, a sexual coming-of-age movie set in the 90’s, I am sorry to say that it was more the latter than the former.  At best it is a complete mixed bag of innuendo and sentiment adding up to one complete mess.

The plot of the movie follows Aubrey Plaza’s Brady Klark, the anal valedictorian of her high school class, as she embarks on the summer before starting college.  After an encounter with Rusty Waters (Scott Porter) - a twenty-something burnout/aspiring musician - sparks her sexual awakening, she with the help of her friends creates a checklist of sexual experiences she believes will prepare her for college. 

Fifteen minutes into the film, I felt like writer/director Maggie Carey had something going with her assault on the early 90’s.  Truth be told, it’s a time period that is just so rich in embarrassing pop culture phenomena.  About thirty-minute later, the jokes really started to get old; clearly the result of going to the well far too many times.  It felt like every time the plot stalled, a joke about hyper color t-shirts or the movie Beaches would find its way into the dialogue.  Does this make the movie a complete disaster?  No.  There are other elements far more damaging, but it is emblematic of just how thin this film runs on laughs after the first act.

Where things really go awry is when the plot twists becomes overly raunchy for no other reason than for the sake of being raunchy.  It’s at those moments where you feel like Carey has completely run out of jokes or plot threads.  It’s unfortunate, because there are some very good comedic moments and solid one-liners to build off of, but ultimately the flow of the narrative gets stifled by these forced scenes.  A bit more attention to both the overall arc and some character development would have gone a long way in remedying this issue.  Again, this film was never intended to be an Oscar nominee (obviously), so one would imagine that this would not have been an insurmountable fix.

One of the more positive aspects of the movie is the cast.  Protagonist Aubrey Plaza of Parks and Recreation is quirky and sarcastic with her signature dry delivery and more often than not she is able to pull off the uptight, nerdy, and  sexually uncomfortable vibe required for the role.  As the movie wears on though, it becomes increasingly evident that she isn’t quite up to the task of carrying a feature film, but it’s not for a lack of trying.  She goes for it and that is highly commendable.

Joining Plaza on this ride is Bill Hader as the degenerate boss of the local public pool.  As one would expect, Hader is very funny in his typical off beat moronic way, but also brings a nice touch of sentimentality to the film.  Connie Britton and Clark Gregg (as Mr. and Mrs. Klark) also do a good job in The To Do List, providing an unbalanced parental presence and generating laughter with their respective perspectives on sex.  Their scenes are especially funny when Rachel Bilson (as Plaza’s more vacuous and more sexually experienced older sister) joins in on the dysfunctional family hijinks. 

Not fairing quite as well is Bilson’s Heart of Dixie co-star, Scott Porter.  As Rusty Waters – the object of Plaza’s desire, Porter fails to really stand out.  His time on screen amounts to little more than flexing by the pool and strumming an acoustic guitar.  His shortcomings however are made up for by the trio of Johnny SimmonsAlia Skawkat, and Sarah Steele - the trio of friends orbiting around Plaza’s R-rated chicanery. 

There were a lot of reasons why I wanted to like this movie.  Its premise is set in a time and place that I can relate to; the cast features two of my favorite Friday Night Lights actors; and Plaza is without a doubt the best thing about Parks and Recreation.  Still, I didn’t walk out of the theater loving this one.  It should have been a rental anyway, but even under those circumstances I don’t know that my appreciation for this movie would have increased.  There are times when the film is really funny, but those scenes don’t outweigh the bad ones.  And without that brand of fun, it’s hard to overlook the movie’s many blemishes.  Save this one for a really really slow night when you are in desperate need for any kind of comedic relief with few other available options.  This gives you the best chance of finding great value in this project.

Standout Performance:  Bill Hader.  Not everything he does in this movie works, but he hits at a higher percentage than his cast mates.  


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