Thursday, July 25, 2013

Review: "The To Do List"

I wish Aubrey Plaza had made this movie a few years ago when she was just starting out as the acerbic April on TV's "Parks and Recreation." It's a classic transitionary role perfect for a new star, playing a high school goody-goody on a mission to lose her virginity before college.

When you're 23 or 24 playing 17 or 18 is a stretch, but still doable. Plaza is 29, so when they put her in the right clothes and makeup she looks exactly like ... someone pushing 30 playing a teen.
I also wish "The To Do List" was just plain better than it is.

It's part of the chicks-can-do-raunch-too movement, of which I am fully supportive. Comediennes have grown tired of their male counterparts eating up all the sex-and-cursing bandwidth, and have launched their own front with "Bridesmaids" and the like.

Written and directed by Maggie Carey, "List" certainly doesn't shy away from the dirty talk, though depictions of sex acts are more coy than flagrant.

The setup is that class of '93 valedictorian Brandy Klark is a total grind who's deliberately ignorant of even the basics of sex. Sister Amber (Rachel Bilson) is a party girl and her parents (Clark Gregg and Connie Britton) are pretty buttoned up, so she determines to achieve her deflowering before summer's end, as sort of a rite-of-passage meets science project.

Brandy being the methodical brainy sort, she researches sex acts and makes a comprehensive list of everything she wants to do. We've seen gosh knows how many sex comedies in which young lads determine to lose their cherry. But Brandy's list looks more like the chapter titles on a porn DVD.

She even has her sights set on the ultimate prize: going all the way with Rusty Waters (Scott Porter), a dude-ish older guy who works at the same pool where she does during the summer. Meanwhile, waiting in the wings is Cameron (Johnny Simmons), a nerdy classmate and longtime pal who'd like to be more than the warm-up act for Rusty.

Bill Hader plays Willy, the slacker pool manager who's both her boss and chief teaser; Andy Samberg is a rocker and potential checkmark on Brandy's list; Donald Glover and Christopher Mintz-Plasse play hangers-on and hopefuls.

The primary other relationships in the story are with Brandy's best buds, Wendy (Sarah Steele) and Fiona (Alia Shawkat). I liked the foul-mouthed repartee between the trio, which combines hardcore sex talk with a certain sweetness. They all call each other "Pancake" while discussing the intimate details of their sexual encounters.

The main problem with "The To Do List" is that it's structured like a series of skits rather than a cohesive narrative. The characters are merely props for the jokes. Plaza tries hard to find the neurotic center of Brandy, but it's tough when the script calls for her to be brazen one minute and a wallflower the next.

There are some individually funny scenes and throwaway jokes -- make sure to check out the graffiti that gets sprayed all over the pool house by a rival gang. And there's one instant classic bit where Plaza pulls off a water joke that's ... well, let's just call it a reverse "Caddyshack."

I think Aubrey Plaza has serious potential as a comedic lead actress, but this movie feels like a stumble. If you want to see her in something infinitely more clever and less bawdy, check out last year's "Safety Not Guaranteed." That little-seen gem should be on everyone's to-do list.

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