Friday, July 26, 2013

The To Do List: Better left undone

The To Do List (2013) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rating: R, for pervasive strong crude and sexual content, graphic dialogue, drug and alcohol use, and constant profanity, all involving teens
By Derrick Bang

Back in the day, youthful sexual explorations followed a common sports metaphor, starting with reaching first base and concluding with the obvious home run.

My, how things have changed.

At first, Fiona (Alia Shawkat, right) shares good friend Brandy's (Aubrey Plaza) elation
over the progress being made on her summer list of planned sexual accomplishments.
But like the so-called comedy in this film, Brandy eventually takes things too far, at
which point Fiona demonstrates that while she might talk the talk, she apparently
doesn't think much of people who walk the walk.
In these sexually liberated and quite raunchy days of the 21st century, that simple baseball metaphor has blossomed into the complexity of a 22-level video game. Libido-driven folks keeping score begin with quaint French kisses and hickies, progress through once-unspoken acts such as motorboating and teabagging, and ultimately, ah, climax with the horizontal bop itself.

At least, that’s what writer/director Maggie Carey would have us believe, with her smutty teen sex comedy, The To Do List.

Sadly, this new film is neither as witty nor as memorable as 2010’s Easy A, which made a star of Emma Stone, and to which The To Do List inevitably will be compared. While this new film’s star — the richly talented and still under-appreciated Aubrey Plaza — deserves a similar breakout hit, she won’t get it here. Carey’s film is too uneven, too clumsy and (to its detriment) too reflexively coarse, in the manner of various Judd Apatow or Farrelly brothers guys-behaving-badly yock-fests.

Ironically, Carey’s biggest problem is that she doesn’t have the courage to pursue her genre convictions. Her script is plenty dirty, but only at a potty-mouth level the Three Stooges would appreciate. She never achieves genuine heat or eroticism, and too many of Plaza’s fellow cast members work beneath their talents, their line readings stiff, unpersuasive and motivated more by writer’s fiat than narrative rational.

We should perhaps ask the basic question: Is this film intended to be genuinely sexy, or merely filthy? Because if the former was Carey’s intention, to any degree, she fouled out before reaching first base.

Her story is set in 1993, apparently to avoid granting its characters any exposure to the Internet porn that has become readily available since then. We meet the over-achieving Brandy Klark (Plaza) as she graduates from high school and gives a roundly jeered valedictory speech. Whatever her academic accomplishments, she has become infamous as both a teacher’s pet and a virgin, the latter epithet apparently far more heinous than the former.

Despite being a social pariah, Brandy has two gal pals — Fiona (Alia Shawkat) and Wendy (Sarah Steele) — who like her but agree that she could, well, loosen up a bit. To hear Fiona and Wendy talk, they’ve either performed or contemplated every act once relegated to the Kama Sutra or Dr. David Reuben’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask).

One suspects this may be nothing but talk; indeed, a third-act crisis results when Fiona and Wendy realize that Brandy has taken them word for debased word. But if this means Fiona and Wendy didn’t really mean anything of what they suggested ... well, Carey never makes that distinction. To her story’s detriment.

Anyway, taking her cue from her friends’ encouragement, Brandy decides that — before entering college in September, as a freshman — she really must become more, ah, experienced.

She receives help — in terms of establishing the all-essential, 22-point “to do” list of desired “skills” — from her contemptuous older sister, Amber (Rachel Bilson). Big sis is a foul-mouthed, full-time slut who’s a profound disappointment to their father (Clark Gregg), a local judge — nothing is made of this profession, beyond its mere mention — who displays the puritanical censure, in all matters sexual, of a chaste nun.

On the other hand, Mrs. Klark (Connie Britton) is much more hip, and her unexpected candor prompts quite a few giggles, thanks to the juxtaposition between Britton’s cheerful, Mom-type calm, and the explicitness of her parental advice.

Although objectively willing to discover and embrace her bad self, Brandy doesn’t develop genuine passion for this challenge until bumping into hunky Rusty Waters (Scott Porter). Thanks to a summer job as lifeguard at the local public pool, Brandy is granted constant exposure to Rusty’s constantly exposed bod: a delectable potential “partner” for the final line-item on her list.

As is typical of such stories, the poster-perfect Rusty out-classes poor Cameron (Johnny Simmons), the longtime friend Brandy always has treated as a platonic buddy, having failed to notice that he has worshipped her from afar, lo these many years.

The final key ingredient in this hormonal bouillabaisse is Willy (Bill Hader), an older slacker who manages the aforementioned pool (and whose character therefore is a close cousin to the role Sam Rockwell plays in The Way, Way Back). Hader is the one actor who matches Plaza’s comic timing, and occasionally tops it; he’s hilarious.

He’s funny because Willy occupies a slightly sideways portion of Brandy’s summer hijinks, and has almost nothing to do with her vice-laden mission. In other words, he’s a reasonably credible character, rather than a one-dimensional walking libido.

Shawkat and Steele make a good double act: The former has a naughty, scheming air that makes Fiona look capable of just about anything, while Steele’s Wendy seems sweet and angelic until she opens her mouth and uncorks another unexpectedly earthy observation.

Bilson overplays the potty-mouthed shrike card, her rendering of Amber too one-dimensionally shrill, and the usually memorable Christopher Mintz-Plasse is wasted in a throwaway part as Duffy, Cameron’s best friend. As for Cameron himself, Simmons has some choice moments as the eternally frustrated “good guy” who wants to be noticed for all the right reasons.

Like Apatow and the Farrelly boys, Carey frequently elicits groans for the display of taboo bodily fluids, particularly those leaking or expelled at inopportune moments. Such moments may register on the funny-because-they’re-gross meter, but Carey gets better-deserved laughs at other moments; many involve Hader, and a few concern some of the wide-eyed adolescents who populate the public pool, and can’t believe the great stuff they’re hearing and seeing during this particular summer.

But as Brandy drinks and debauches her way through the summer months, initially apprehensively but with increased enthusiasm, she quickly develops an entirely different sort of bad reputation, this time among the people who mean the most to her.

And that’s a problem: not so much within this story’s thin framework, but in terms of the unbalanced tone Carey takes. After encouraging her protagonist to yield to every sexual temptation for nearly 90 minutes, often in slapstick fashion, Carey clumsily inserts a heavy-handed, real-world “lesson” that sounds like it was scripted by the Moral Majority. Apparently, this little sermon is intended to compensate for everything that has gone before, and demonstrate that Brandy has Learned An Important Lesson.

It doesn’t work, and not only because Plaza, despite her comic timing, can’t make her eleventh-hour “purity diatribe” sound the slightest bit genuine. No, the major hiccup is that all these characters have been little more than sex-crazed cartoons up to this point, and Carey suddenly wants us to “feel” for them as real people.


Doesn’t work that way. If Carey wants that sort of ethical reckoning, she needs to better layer Brandy, her friends and family from the get-go. As it stands, this film’s conclusion feels like a cheat, or a take-back: much like a career Catholic sinner who “recants” everything in Confession, and walks away with a Get-Out-of-Hell-Free card. Phooey.

Carey comes to us from TV work, most notably Funny or Die Presents; The To Do List is her debut big-screen feature. Like Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s The Way, Way Back, Carey’s script wound up on Hollywood’s annual “Black List” of the industry’s best unproduced screenplays, a few years back. Carey had written the script with New York City improv troupe colleague Plaza in mind, and the rising actress joined a staged reading at the 2010 Austin Film Festival.

That audience loved it; flash-forward a bit, to this big-screen disappointment. Let’s just say that Carey didn’t make the most of her moment, the way Faxon and Rash did.

I’ve long noticed that title credits often indicate the quality of what follows: the more clever the credits — and The To Do List has the best I’ve seen for awhile — the better the film. Alas, my little handicapper let me down this time; aside from genuine chuckles here and there, the credits are the best part of Carey’s movie.

Which can only leave us unfulfilled, regardless of the scoring system employed.

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