Monday, July 29, 2013

THE TO DO LIST Doesn't Quite Go All The Way


- A few years ago, Bridesmaids inverted the usual Judd Apatowian formula and crafted a sweet-yet-raunchy comedy that also proved to be a big box office hit. Suddenly, the floodgates seemed open for gross-out comedies not explicitly told from the male point of view. And hey, to me, that's awesome. We've seen endless variations on the geeky-guy-pines-for-out-of-his-league-dream-girl story. Why not see what happens when you flip the template, and focus in on the good-girl valedictorian who wants to explore her inner wild-child? Psyched to see a group of smart and funny folks tackle this very subject matter, I went into THE TO DO LIST with pretty high expectations. In last year's Safety Not Guaranteed, Aubrey Plaza proved that she had the chops to be a great quirky-comedic leading lady. Throw her in an envelope-pushing hard-R movie alongside the likes of Bill Hader, Alia Shawkat, Donald Glover, Connie Britton, and Clark Gregg ... and I'm 100% onboard.

Unfortunately, as well-intentioned and as loaded with comedic talent as the movie is, it only occasionally scores big laughs. Good intentions, sadly, don't always equal hilarity - and the movie seems to struggle to define what kind of comedy it wants to be. The movie's spiritual successor definitely seems to be American Pie, but American Pie managed to capture a zeitgeisty tone that The To Do List seems to fumble to recapture.

The movie centers around recent high school grad Brandy Klark (Plaza), who made it through high school with barely an amorous encounter to her name - so focused was she on grades. Now, in the summer before the start of college, she's become smitten with a local, guitar-strumming alpha male named Rusty Waters (Scott Porter), who melts her heart with an acoustic rendition of Def Leppard's "Pour Some Sugar On Me," and who happens to be sharing a summer job as a lifeguard at a local pool. Determined to win the attention of Rusty, Brandy decides to work her way through a to-do list of sex acts so as to eventually be worthy for her older and more experienced object of lust. With the help of her two boy-crazy friends, Fiona (Shawkat) and Wendy (Sarah Steele), Brandy opens herself up (so to speak) to a multitude of new experiences - rounding the bases, if you will, before preparing herself to eventually go all the way. Of course, Brandy's single-minded pursuit causes some rifts with her friends, her family (her over-involved, over-sharing parents played by Britton and Gregg, and her prom-queen sister Amber - Rachel Bilson), and with her friend Cameron, who harbors a major crush.

Right off the bat, there's sort of an inherent dilemma in doing an apples-to-apples, gender-swapped inversion of the typical "She's Out of My League" type of story. Plaza may not be the typical young Hollywood starlet, but she's still an attractive woman whose character shouldn't have much trouble seducing any guy she sets her sights on - particularly the horn-dog Rusty. To the movie's credit, it becomes about much more than just the endgame. Instead, when a Brandy-Rusty hookup becomes an inevitability, it becomes a movie about women being boxed in as either the "virgin" or the "whore" (a problem that Brandy directly mentions). And it becomes a movie about Brandy having to choose either the geeky good-guy or the good-looking bad-boy. And it's about the unfairness of being forced into that choice (more a comment on other teen movies than any realistic sort of scenario). In between, Brandy semi-enthusiastically hooks up with just about every other male character in the movie, as part of her mission to complete the to-do list.

The problem is that THE TO DO LIST raises a couple of complex issues - acknowledging that it can't and won't simply be a female-centric version of American Pie - but never *really* tackles them in any meaningful or satisfactory way. The movie seems to want to say something about Brandy's behavior, but there are mixed messages, to say the least. It all climaxes (no pun intended ... okay, sort of intended) in a final act that is sort of off-putting. There seems to be a semi-conscious effort to subvert genre norms and not have Brandy do things just for the sake of pleasing the audience. But for that reason, the movie tends to have a bit of a mean streak. I mean, look, there's a reason why all those movies about awkward and geeky guys resonate - it's because the best ones seem to come from a real place of teenage trauma and pain. The To Do List rarely feels like it's tapping into anything real - it's more about the genre subversion for subversion's sake - and so it lacks a real sense of authenticity. Unlikable can still work if it's coming from a real place - I think of the brilliant, Diablo Cody-penned Young Adult as a prime example. But here, writer-director Maggie Carey makes it feel like she's working backwards from an admittedly hook-y premise. The premise doesn't necessarily feel like it comes organically from the characters. So Brandy feels less like a character and more like a walking vehicle for the movie's premise. Why was Brandy so puritanical in the first place? If her friends are out having sex and hooking up, why does she seem so ignorant to it all? Why exactly does lusting after one guy suddenly make her want to experiment with a whole menagerie of guys? There's a lot of stuff here that, honestly, feels a bit forced and contrived.

(Aside: the movie is set in 1993, but for no real reason other than as an excuse for lots of awkward references and "let's laugh at how things were back then" jokes. The 90's setting is almost less a plot-point than it is a running gag, but it's also played too straightforwardly to be all that funny.)

Here's the thing though: THE TO DO LIST could have avoided a lot of these sorts of issues by simply going big, broad, and absurdist. The movie's best moments come when it goes in that direction, and just chucks any pretense of sincerity or realism out the window. For example, when Andy Samberg shows up as an Eddie Vedder-wannabe grunge singer, who's hilariously dark and tormented howls while hooking up with Brandy had me loudly laughing. Another example is the hilariously over-the-top writing for Brandy's parents, which forces Clark Gregg and Connie Britton to give matter-of-fact sexual advice to their daughter in a way that might make even Eugene Levy blush. But the movie's more absurdist moments are outweighed by the movie's more dominant tone - which is much more straightforward and sitcom-y. The film attempts to mine a lot of laughs and extract a lot of shock value from how far it goes with some of its sex gags and gross-out humor. But despite the almost uncomfortably frank depictions of various sexual acts, things still seem oddly restrained. It's like the sex itself is supposed to be shocking/funny enough to power the movie's engine. In reality, the movie needed more jokes and gags that ratcheted things up a notch, and built some more real, comic momentum. Maybe the memory of the brilliantly-escalating jokes from this summer's THIS IS THE END is still too fresh - but in comparison, the comedy of The To Do List felt a bit weak and unimaginative. Yeah, it's different and semi-shocking to see a female protagonist get, um, intimate with herself onscreen in this level of detail. But the ensuing jokes to make the scene worth more than just shock value are sorely lacking.

Still, I mentioned the level of talent in the film, and it really is an impressive ensemble that helps to elevate things. I'm still a huge fan of Aubrey Plaza. She is eminently watchable in this, and she does innumerable little things to make certain scenes funny beyond what's in the script. She's getting really good at physical comedy as well, as evidenced in, among other scenes, her hilarious attempt to woo Rusty while wearing an ill-fitting bikini. Meanwhile, guys like Bill Hader bring improvisational talents so as to make little, off-the-cuff-scenes (like his impromptu Home Improvement parody) into memorable comedic moments.

THE TO DO LIST has its moments - it's helped immeasurably by a great and funny cast, and it's frequently fun to just watch these talented actors do their thing. But too many jokes and gags fall flat for me to recommend it as a must-see comedy. And for a comedy that has a number of incredibly broad, over-the-top gags, the movie still feels too serious-minded for its own good. To that end, it feels like a movie intent on saying *something* about femininity and sexuality, but that can't quite nail down what that something is.

My Grade: B-

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